No one expects a president up for reelection not to make use of the benefits of his office. One of them is to announce new examples of federal largess, be they grants for a "promising neighborhood" program; "a major expansion of Skills for America's Future, an industry-led initiative to dramatically improve industry partnerships with community colleges and build a nation-wide network to maximize workforce development strategies, job training programs, and job placements"; or plans to "Win the Future" by making grants for better energy efficiency.
What Americans do not expect is that their president will abruptly and summarily subvert the administrative machinery of the executive branch to further his own reelection prospects. But that is exactly what President Obama did.
In 2011, the president's reelection prospects were in trouble for several reasons. His economic policies were not making much headway in helping to bring the country out of a stubborn recession. And even after the recession had "officially" ended in 2010, his policies proved no more effective in stimulating real economic growth or job creation.
The Affordable Care Act, which was meant to be the first in a series signature policies cementing his stature as a transformational leader, never gained acceptance with wide swaths of the public, and still hasn't.
The 2010 Dodd-Frank Bill, touted as reforming financial excesses that were said to be complicit in the country's economic problems, was supposed to address the problem of Wall Street institutions being "too big to fail". Yet, to date the so-called "Volcker rule", which is the center of the bill, still doesn't exist because the bureaucracies can't decipher how to write it. But at any rate, the bill did little to help the president's reelection prospects since it clearly did nothing to improve the country's level of job creation or economic growth. And its focus and technical nature were far removed from the concerns of ordinary Americans.
Nor could the president count on a comparable outpouring of enthusiasm from ordinary Americans proud of his historic candidacy. History aside, he was now being judged on performance. And the judgments were equivocal.
His fervent supporters also had their complaints. The president had been too timid. He had compromised too much. And he had not fulfilled all the enormous expectations that his campaign had made every effort to stimulate.
Nowhere was this disappointment of expectations more keenly felt, and its implications more politically perilous, than with the American Hispanic community. During his campaign, the president had promised that community that "comprehensive immigration reform", including the legalization of the 11.5 million illegal aliens living and working in the United States would be a top administration priority during his first term.
It wasn't, and for reasons entirely consistent with the president's determination to make history match his view of himself as a transformational leader.
"Historic" major heath care legislation fit that ambition; immigration reform, even if "comprehensive" did not. Even had immigration legislation passed, it would still have been just reform and thus provided no sure fast path to "greatness".
Given the president's ambition for historical greatness and his equivocal claim to it in his first term, he faced one daunting pre-qualifying requirement he had to surmount. He had to be reelected
No "great" American president had ever failed to be reelected to a second term, and so Obama's historical legacy as a transformational president depended on it.
Next: False Promise: Immigration Policy in the President's First Term