Anyone with a kid or a boss knows that one of the most important things you can do is back off. Hovering over your kid is not the best way to get them to put on their coat, and it’s not the best way to get a raise.
And that is the position President Obama finds himself in as he jets to Las Vegas on Tuesday to tout comprehensive immigration reform. The issue has hopelessly divided Congress over the past few years and the president punted on it in his first term, vowing to return to it after the election. It was in his Inaugural Address and it will be in his State of the Union.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the border crossing: Congress has now taken up immigration reform in earnest with all the good-government diligence of a Brookings report and a Washington Post editorial. Bipartisan groups of senators have been earnestly hammering out plans, including the inseparable duo of John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as well Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Chastened by the election results, Republicans have returned to the McCain-Ted Kennedy-George W. Bush immigration consensus that thrived around 2006, which is to create a so-called pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers. McCain himself retreated from his earlier position saying that border security had to come before the creation of a pathway for 11 million undocumented workers to seek citizenship. Now, McCain is back on board with his own plan—and so are lots of other folks.
One of the things to look for is whether Obama has the good sense to lead from behind and not claim this plan as his own crusade. That is the surest way to piss off Congress, especially congressional Republicans, just as it is children and bosses. Letting them come up with the plan and showing a willingness to sign off on it would probably be the best bet. If it’s seen as Obama's plan, they’ll reflexively oppose it. If it’s Marco Rubio’s plan, even if it bears little difference from Obama’s, Republicans—who want Hispanics' love even more than a tax cut—will embrace it.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan goosed tax reform along without making it his own, and that’s probably the best bet for Obama this time.
Of course, having set in motion the presidential machinery of claiming it is one of his top priorities, it’s going to be hard for Obama not to lead the charge, especially when it’s like pushing on an open door. Congress has suddenly become receptive. So why not? But despite the temptation to drop one’s own bill in, say, the Senate Judiciary Committee through Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., holding back would make the most sense, lest the president galvanize Republicans.
Getting to the finish line on immigration won’t be easy despite the new receptivity. There are policy questions: Will the E-Verify system be widely demanded or not? What’s the route to green cards? There are political ones: Can the tea party back off its tough stand on immigration? Can labor and Hispanic groups accept tougher documentation standards? There’s a reason we haven’t had a big immigration bill in more than a generation. Knowing when to have a light touch will require the president to be less assertive than he was in his inaugural address.