Recently, Barack Obama announced a laudable new policy position on immigration. His administration will no longer deport undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children by their parents, as long as they don't get in trouble with the law. These are people who are essentially Americans without citizenship, and the risk of deportation to a country they don't really know is a terrifying and unfair. Aside from this serving the cause of justice and human decency, this is a long overdue move to reward a constituency group, happening in an election year. It's worth understanding how this policy change came about, so that one can get a sense of the incentives that animate the White House policy shop.
Here's White House advisor David Plouffe on CNN describing the change.
Senior White House adviser David Plouffe insisted Sunday that President Obama's decision to defer deportation of certain illegal immigrants who came to the country as children was "fully within" the president's authority and not made with the 2012 election in mind.
"This is not a political move. This builds on a lot of steps that we have already taken," Plouffe said on the CNN program "State of the Union."
So it's not a political move. Ok. I find that hard to believe, since it's an election year. And indeed, this was published in the New Yorker a few days ago.
The White House is so convinced of the centrality of Hispanics to the current election and its aftermath that Plouffe told me he has been preparing for months for an onslaught of advertisements from a pro-Romney group attacking Obama from the left on immigration, arguing that Obama's deportation and border-security policies have been too Draconian.
David Plouffe thinks nothing of outright lying on CNN about why the administration changed its policy, in one forum describing it as a useful policy change and denying any political incentives and in another more insider-friendly publication making it clear that it was a reelection gambit. It doesn't matter whether the politics or the policy were the driving force, it's a good change. That Plouffe feels that he can so cavalierly lie shows how dishonestly this administration operates.
There are more political lessons to be drawn, other than the fact that this administration is full of liars and that Obama usually only helps non-wealthy constituency groups when he is scrambling for his own electoral survival. The political lesson is that pressure matters, but so does leverage. The overall atmosphere on this particular problem – undocumented immigrants who arrived as kids – came to a boiling point through the actions of an entire activism eco-system. There were nationwide marches for immigration reform a few years ago, and undocumented college students bravely marched openly to bring this issue to light. These kids embarrassed the administration, and it must have shown in the polls in terms of dampening enthusiasm to vote in 2012 among Latinos. But even this was not enough.
It was only fear of the Republicans outflanking Obama to the left that got the administration to move. When the issue came to a head, and Obama feared that he would pay a political price from the Republicans, all of the excuses – the terrible Republican opposition, a divided country, an intractable Congress with a 60 vote threshold – suddenly evaporated. Faced with losing his own hide, Obama governed.
This is a reasonable template for how to get the Obama administration to act. It's very very hard, and requires a lot of organizing to raise an issue to level where the Obama administration feels heat and embarrassment. It's similar to the administration's stance on gay marriage. Prior to his announced support for gay marriage, Obama backtracked on an executive order banning discrimination among government contractors. He promised to sign the order, and then didn't. Gay billionaire donors were outraged, and began witholding money from his campaign. And since Obama needed their money to make up for the general lack of excitement for his reelection on both Wall Street and among his small dollar donors, he acted. He tepidly announced personal support for gay marriage, with no corresponding legal or political support. This isn't a small deal; the President carries moral weight. But it happened because he needed the money.
There's one additional constraint on the administration's range of actions. Obama will not make policy changes that negatively affect those with money, unless he can't avoid it or unless he is rewarding a constituency group that has even more money. Neither gay rights nor immigration will threaten the broad support of the financial services industry and economic injustice, because neither threatens oligarch control of the political system and the economy (marijuana decriminalization is another issue like this). Corporate America is perfectly happy to see more immigration, because immigration can depress wages. Rich people are also perfectly happy to support gay rights, because there are enough openly gay rich elites to have turned opinion in that area. Dick Cheney, for instance, came out for gay marriage years ago. Politicians like gay rights in particular because there's less and less risk in taking on the issue, but the PR value of being able to call yourself "progressive" and cover up an agenda of supporting increasing economic inequality is substantial. It's why Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs is the face of gay marriage for corporate America, having signed up with a gay rights group to push the issue. But even within those "safe" issues, as with the executive order on discrimination which might have forced changes among wealthy government contractors, Obama tends to instinctively side with the more corrupt interest groups if there is money at stake.
On the Republican side of the aisle, gay rights and immigration are fairly interesting problems. Both are issue areas where the funders of the Republican Party are not aligned with the base of the Republican party. The base of the Republican Party is racist against Latinos as well as generally homophobic, whereas corporate leaders see less and less value in being so antagonistic towards those groups. Romney, like Obama, is with the funders (as was Bush on immigration). In fact, one of the largest SuperPAC donors to Romney, Paul Singer, is now launching a pro-gay marriage Superpac to operate within the Republican Party. Aesthetically, these two candidates might differ, but on the broad thrust of policy, it's not clear they do, even on many questions around social policy issues. It's about the money, and the leverage.
The only reason that Barack Obama will make policy moves in your direction is if he feels he can't avoid it, or if you're going to pay him or his administration off somehow. He'll pawn you off as long as he can with PR and his own fake inspirational story; the contempt of Plouffe towards the public should show that these guys are entirely about PR. So if you immediately recognize that the only thing that matters is leverage instead of the stupid consistent appeals to the better angels of their nature or even worse, electoral advantage (as opposed to a real genuine threat from the Republicans), you're one step up. It's not a novel insight, but it's worth bringing it up again when the administration reminds us so abrasively of the contempt they have for anyone paying attention to how they operate.