The President's Legacy Trap and Speaker Boehner's Immigration Opening

By Stanley Renshon on November 29, 2013

Immigration legislation was passed in the Senate, but that bill was dead on arrival in the House. The House has been working slowly on a series of immigration bills whose number and exact form have not been finalized.

Enormous pressure has been placed on Republican House members and Speaker Boehner to pass immigration legislation, preferably the House Democratic version of the Senate bill, but if not, then something that can be sent to the Senate for conference and reconciliation.

To date, the House and Mr. Boehner have resisted the pressure and the entreaties, which have, ironically, placed them in a very strong position.

The president is caught in a legacy trap of his own making. He failed to pass immigration legislation when his party controlled both houses of Congress with substantial majorities.

The Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and failed to gain it back in 2012. It is very unlikely that they will do so in 2014 and they may well lose their Senate majority in that year as well.

In the meantime, the clock is winding down on the Obama presidency and with it his chance to make his mark and leave an undisputed legacy. As of now, his legacy is very much in dispute.

His main claim to a presidential legacy, his health care legislation, is mired in controversy and likely to remain so. The problem is not so much the avoidable fiasco of the rollout, although this has made a very bad initial impression on the public.

The problems run much deeper and concerns the radical transformation of a very basic and intimate relationship — that between people and their doctors. Ultimately, this relationship touches on the most basic aspects of existence — life, death, and well-being.

The president promised, repeatedly, that these relationships would not be adversely affected — that Americans could keep their doctors and their hospitals. They can't and won't be able to and the president knew it.

As a result of these willful misrepresentations trust in the president's integrity and competence, have dramatically fallen, and deservedly so. Fifty-three percent of the public now thinks that the president isn't honest; 60 percent say he is not a good manager of the federal government.

The problem for the president's legacy is not only that the public is souring on him, but also that it is doing so in the context of well-documented misrepresentations that will not escape historical scrutiny.

The president said two things, repeatedly, that were not true and which he knew to be false:

If you like your healthcare plan, you'll be able to keep your healthcare plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.


No matter how we reform healthcare, we will keep this promise: if you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period.

One analysis referred to this last promise in the following way: "Come 2014, the rest of the country may learn that another high-profile pledge was untrue."

These lies have torn the bond of trust that exists between a president and the public in the best of circumstances, but they may not be dispositive in the perspective of the president's legacy. Bill Clinton assured the public that he did not have sex with that woman, although he did, and suffered through an impeachment because he lied before a grand jury about his relationship. However, his post-presidency reputation has recovered.

The major danger for President Obama's legacy is not that the public has concluded he is untrustworthy. After all, misrepresentations in the service of advancing presidential agendas are not novel occurrences. Rather the real legacy danger is that the public will continue to reject his signature accomplishment. The more they learn about what it is doing to their relationships with their doctors and hospital providers, and at what cost, the less they like it.

If the law survives intact, which is not assured, it will be an equivocal legacy item for the president, at best.

That is why the president is suffering from legacy hunger, and why John Boehner has a chance to achieve something truly remarkable — an immigration bill in the public interest.

Next: What Speaker Boehner Could Achieve: A Focused Public Interest Immigration Grand Bargain