As things stand now, President Obama will leave the White House with two legacies. The first legacy is historic: Obama will always be the nation's first black president. The second is policy: He is the creator of Obamacare, the national health care system Democrats had tried to enact for decades.
Now, with his unilateral edict to legalize millions of illegal immigrants, Obama is seeking a third legacy. This one is political, as he tries to strengthen, expand and extend the Obama coalition, built on the support of minorities, youth and women, in hopes that it will last far beyond his presidency.
No, Obama's executive action will not turn millions of illegal immigrants into voters tomorrow. But it will begin a process that will end there. And it will encourage more immigrants to come illegally to the United States in the future, where Obama and his party hope they will become reliable Democratic voters. The country is already becoming less white -- a trend that for now favors Democrats -- and Obama's move will push the process along.
The impetus behind executive action is politics, politics, politics. There's certainly no urgent policy reason forcing Obama to act.
Back in 2009 and 2010, when he had overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate, Obama did not find the circumstances of the nation's 11 million or 12 million illegal immigrants so compelling that he had to act. Nor did he find it necessary to act just before or after his re-election in 2012. And this year, he explicitly put off acting until after the midterm elections in the (vain) hope of sparing his party political damage.
Now, as that history suggests, Obama is acting in the face of public opinion. A Wall Street Journal poll released shortly before the president's announcement found that just 38 percent approved of Obama's unilateral action, while 48 percent disapproved. (Thirteen percent had no opinion.)
The public's approval of Obama's action is roughly equal to its approval of another unpopular Obama legacy item, the Affordable Care Act. In the most recent Gallup poll, just 37 percent said they approved of Obamacare.
Some supporters of executive action predict approval will increase with time. "While the breadth of anger will be wide, the intensity of the benefits will be deep," former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros told The Washington Post. But that hasn't proven the case with Obamacare, which now has disapproval ratings in the mid-50s, according to Gallup. It's not at all clear that an executive edict on immigration will fare any better.
But Obama's action is not about winning broad support now. It's a long-term effort to increase the number of Hispanic voters, who chose Obama over Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012. If that support can be cast in cement, and the number of Hispanic voters increased even beyond current demographic trends -- well, that would be very good news for the future health of the Obama coalition.
Obama's action doesn't have to be broadly popular to achieve that goal. Just as Obamacare was designed by Democrats, passed on a strict party-line vote, and directed in significant part toward Democratic constituencies, so Obama's immigration action can be targeted specifically to shore up a key element of his coalition in hopes that it will remain Democratic for a long, long time. That's what Cisneros meant when he said "the intensity of the benefits will be deep."
That long-term benefit makes executive action worth it, even though it is of dubious legality, is a terrible precedent for future presidents, and could be big political trouble for Obama in coming months. At this point in Obama's presidency, it's all about the legacy.