There’s a lesson from President Obama’s first term that he should have learned long ago. It’s simple: On an issue that affects many millions of Americans, it’s best—even necessary—to have bipartisan support in Congress. Going forward in a purely partisan fashion is bound to cause national discord, increase polarization, and heighten distrust in Washington. Worse still, it means the issue will be controversial for years to come.
The enduring unpopularity of Obamacare—indeed, the Republican commitment to repeal it—is an example of what can happen when bipartisanship is spurned. In this case, Obama and congressional Democrats made no effort to attract Republicans. They declined to compromise, offering Republicans zilch. They were mesmerized by their huge majorities in the Senate and House.
Now they own Obamacare, including all its troubles. Republicans own none. And the health care law lacks full legitimacy. Four years after it was enacted, Democrats are still suffering politically. For them, Obamacare is a drag.
The same is likely to occur with Obama’s executive amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. It is doubly doomed to be regarded as illegitimate—first, because it stretches presidential authority beyond the breaking point, and second, because it has no bipartisan backing. Obama’s action is supported by many (but not all) Democrats in Congress but zero Republicans.
The president should have known better. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats dominated the Senate and House. To pass Obamacare, legislative maneuvering was required, but not Republican votes. So they didn’t recruit any. The upshot: Opposition to Obamacare is a thorn in the side of Democrats and will continue to be.
Obama and Democrats repeated the mistake with the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. It got a total of six Republican votes in the Senate and House—not enough to qualify as bipartisan. At one point, Democrat Max Baucus, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sought to negotiate a compromise with Republican Bob Corker. That effort was short-circuited by the Obama White House and other Democrats, who weren’t interested in concessions or compromise. Now Republicans are eager to kill major parts of Dodd-Frank, if not all of it.
On these measures and the new executive order on illegal immigrants, Obama is bucking the rule of thumb that favorable public opinion and especially a bipartisan majority are vital to public acceptance of a major initiative.
This rule has a long history. In 1965, immigration laws were liberalized with strong bipartisan support in Congress. In 1986, immigration laws were strengthened, again with bipartisan backing, and three million illegal immigrants were granted a path to citizenship.
Bipartisan backing has made entitlements sacrosanct. In 1935, Social Security was approved by a large majority of Democrats and Republicans. Doctors opposed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, but both passed with support from nearly all Democrats and half the Republicans.
There’s more. All the civil rights bills were passed with bipartisan majorities. So was the legislation establishing the interstate highway system in 1956. Federal aid to education and No Child Left Behind had bipartisan backing. But the Economic Opportunity Act, the antipoverty bill, passed with only 10 Republican votes in the Senate and 22 in the House. Not surprisingly it remained controversial.
On immigration reform, Obama is acting from an awkward position. As a candidate in 2008, he promised to push for its passage during his first term. But he dawdled and failed to propose a bill. With large Democratic majorities in the Senate and House in his first two years in office, the president could easily have gotten it through Congress, probably with some Republican support. Why did Obama balk? The best guess is he feared a volatile issue like immigration might jeopardize his reelection.
However, he’s accepted no responsibility for the delay. “Everybody agrees our immigration system is broken,” he said in a video on his Facebook page last week. “Unfortunately, Washington has allowed the problem to fester too long.” True, it has festered. But it wasn’t Washington that postponed Obama’s announcement until after Election Day so it wouldn’t harm Democratic candidates in the midterm voting. It was Obama.
Nor does Obama acknowledge that he repeatedly told supporters of immigration reform that he didn’t have the presidential authority to, in effect, legalize so-called undocumented immigrants. His defenders have claimed he was merely doing what President Reagan and the first President Bush had done. The difference is Reagan and Bush did only what Congress had specifically authorized them to do.
Obama may think he’s acting in a noble cause. He’s right about that. But he’s doing it in a manner that can only make his immigration policy all the more polarizing and unacceptable to a majority of Americans. And he’s assured that it won’t go away any time soon.