Richard Neustadt's classic analysis Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan emphasized that presidents, for all their advisors and supporters, ultimately must rely on themselves to accomplish their policy purposes. He called this need self-help and every successful president has made use of it.
In Neustadt's analysis, self-help is used to further the president's major policy preferences, not the president's primarily personal and political self-interest. Where the latter begins and the former ends, however, is not always easy to discern. And that is especially the case for presidents like Mr. Obama, who consider themselves to be great historical figures.
In the area of immigration, the administration became the victim of its own inaccurate narrative of the president as an enforcement hawk. He was not, but still had to win over Hispanics who had believed the narrative hype. Administration officials were forced into the ironic positions of having to "[I]nsist that the government has worked hard over the last four years to make deporting criminals the top priority, while allowing law enforcement officers more discretion on deciding whom to send home. They say the perception of a huge crackdown is erroneous and misleading," which of course it was. (emphasis mine)
Immigration activists wanted the president to suspend all deportations. That question came up publicly at a 2011 town hall meeting sponsored by Univision:
MR. RAMOS: Mr. President, my question will be as follows: With an executive order, could you be able to stop deportations of the students? And if that's so, that links to another of the questions that we have received through univision.com. We have received hundreds, thousand, all related to immigration and the students. Kay Tomar (ph) through univision.com told us — I'm reading — "What if at least you grant temporary protective status, TPS, to undocumented students? If the answer is yes, when? And if no, why not?"
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, temporary protective status historically has been used for special circumstances where you have immigrants to this country who are fleeing persecution in their countries, or there is some emergency situation in their native land that required them to come to the United States. So it would not be appropriate to use that just for a particular group that came here primarily, for example, because they were looking for economic opportunity.
With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that's just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed — and I know that everybody here at Bell is studying hard so you know that we've got three branches of government. Congress passes the law. The executive branch's job is to enforce and implement those laws. And then the judiciary has to interpret the laws.
There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president. (emphasis mine)
That exchange was on March 28, 2011. On June 15, 2012, the president completely reversed course.
His Secretary of Homeland Security issued a new policy that would suspend all removal proceedings against illegal aliens whose parents brought them into the country illegally before the age of 16 (and grant them work authorization).
What had changed? Nothing legally. The restrictions that the president had noted in his March 28 exchange hadn't changed. The president was still responsible for enforcing immigration law.
Shortly after the new policy was announced, the New York Times reported that "President Obama decided last week on a major policy shift to stop deportations of young illegal immigrants after administration officials saw that he was losing the initiative to Republicans on an issue he had long championed and that he was alienating the Latino voters who may be pivotal to his re-election bid."
This was true as far as it went, but it did not delve deeply enough into the president's more fundamental motives.
What had changed were the president's reelection prospects and with it the continuation of his presidency's most important project — validating the president's belief that he was a transformative and historic leader.
The legal basis of the president's unilateral immigration policy change is complex and ambiguous. He has discretion in carrying out the laws, but there are limits. Exactly what these are and how they apply specifically to immigration policy is a matter of debate.
But these debates miss an important point. The president, like George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, and many others like him, could truthfully say, "I Seen My Opportunities and I Took 'Em."
Mr. Plunkitt was talking about his proclivities for "honest graft". For President Obama the calculations are quite different and much more personal than pecuniary.
The president needed a bold, unequivocal signal to the Hispanic community that was a direct result of his administration's initiative to help ensure his reelection and with it the chance to more closely align his view of his own leadership with history's. And in his new DACA policy he had it.
Adhering to the constitutional requirement that the president "take care that the laws be faithfully executed", or the president's oath of office that requires that he will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States were simply not worth the risk to the president's ambitions.
NEXT: Bipartisan Immigration Conventional Wisdom: Caveat Emptor