Will Obama Be Presidential or Political?

While the White House and Congress stumble to an agreement, the great unknown is Obama’s second act.

President Barack Obama stands during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, October 15, 2013.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 16, 2013, 7:35 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans will cave, the White House will win, the gov­ern­ment will re-open, and the debt ceil­ing will be raised. These things are go­ing to hap­pen, just be­fore or soon after the gov­ern­ment hits its bor­row­ing lim­it — and at that point, Pres­id­ent Obama faces a de­cision.

Do I lever­age my vic­tory in­to a budget deal, elim­in­at­ing both a long-term na­tion­al threat and the main source of par­tis­an bick­er­ing?

Or do I rub salt in­to the GOP’s self-in­flic­ted wounds in the dis­tant hope of win­ning the House in 2014?

Gov­ern or cam­paign? Unite or di­vide? Lead or lay in­to the GOP?

Obama’s choice may be re­vealed in the way he ap­proaches im­mig­ra­tion re­form, which he curi­ously de­clared Tues­day to be his top pri­or­ity after the fisc­al crisis.

“Once that’s done, you know, the day after, I’m go­ing to be push­ing to say, call a vote on im­mig­ra­tion re­form,” Obama told the Los Angeles af­fil­i­ate of Span­ish-lan­guage tele­vi­sion net­work Uni­vi­sion.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing choice, giv­en the na­tion­al debt is an ex­ist­en­tial na­tion­al prob­lem and the crux of the role-of-gov­ern­ment de­bate that has tied Wash­ing­ton in knots for years. Does Obama really think im­mig­ra­tion is a more ser­i­ous prob­lem? Or is it merely the best polit­ic­al is­sue for Demo­crats?

It is tempt­ing to as­sume the worse, es­pe­cially as Obama is mod­el­ing his im­mig­ra­tion mes­sage on his fisc­al-crisis talk­ing points. Blam­ing House Speak­er John Boehner for pre­vent­ing im­mig­ra­tion from com­ing up for a vote in the past, Obama said, “The only thing right now that’s hold­ing it back is, again, Speak­er Boehner not will­ing to call the bill on the floor of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.”

Make no mis­take, Re­pub­lic­ans are on the wrong side of the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate, as meas­ured by the 2012 elec­tion res­ults and the na­tion’s shift­ing demo­graphy. The GOP also en­gin­eered the fisc­al crisis, and Boehner is a tra­gic­ally weak speak­er.

But most voters would be dis­ap­poin­ted if they learn that their pres­id­ent has aban­doned gov­ernance and the hard work of deal­ing with a frac­tured GOP to en­gage in an all-or-noth­ing bid for the House. While the White House and Con­gress stumble to an agree­ment, the great un­known is Obama’s second act. Will he be more pres­id­en­tial than polit­ic­al? Or will raw polit­ics define his pres­id­ency?

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