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Pro: Obama can shore up his popularity by pushing immigration reform

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John D. Graham
May 1, 2010
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should President Obama move immigration reform to the top of his legislative priorities?

With a razor-thin victory on health care behind him, President Obama must make a critical decision on his next legislative priority in order to maintain the momentum that is vital to Democratic prospects in the November elections and the future of the Obama presidency.


In making this decision, he should learn from President George W. Bush’s error in delaying immigration reform until it was too late.


While Obama should push forward with financial reform, he should give immigration reform higher priority than energy because immigration is an issue that can unify most Democrats while attracting a significant number of Republican crossover votes in the Senate.


The president already has the executive authority he needs to pursue much of his agenda on climate change.


For example, the Environmental Protection Agency can establish a cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. Obama has demonstrated he is willing to use executive power.


In addition to his recent decision to open new areas to offshore oil and natural gas development, he also signed an executive order in October to improve the federal government’s environmental, energy and economic performance.


Some fear that raising the immigration issue will rev up the Tea Party movement and Rush Limbaugh. But they are already revved up! The Democrats can use the immigration issue to rally their own base.


Bush made a compelling case that immigration reform is good for America. Politically, immigration reform is also good for Obama and the Democratic Party. It will boost enthusiasm among the Hispanic community in November and dare the Republican leadership in Congress to commit virtual suicide with harsh anti-immigration rhetoric. After the national immigration debate of 2006, several anti-immigration Republicans were ousted from Congress.


In 2006, a Bush-encouraged plan co-sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy passed the Senate 62-36. It contained a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented migrants living in the United States, plus a large increase in the number of green cards for future immigrants.


Although immigration reform was highly controversial, the McCain-Kennedy bill attracted 40 of 46 Democrats and 22 of 54 Republicans in the Senate.


The only reason the Bush-era bill did not become law is the refusal of the House Republican leadership to consider it. At the time, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, acknowledged the deep divisions within his caucus over the issue.


Obama can learn from Bush’s experience. Bush achieved success with his domestic policies by reaching out to moderate Democrats to help shape his agenda. He lured Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., into supporting his energy legislation and employed a similar strategy in securing prescription drug benefits for seniors with Sen. Max Baucus. D-Mont.


Bush saw his political capital decline in a dramatic fashion when he took on issues with zero cross-partisan appeal, such as reforming Social Security and tort law.


Obama now has the opportunity to approach immigration reform from the Democratic side, bringing in moderate Republicans who supported immigration reform in 2006.


By combining border security with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Obama should be able to find cross-partisan support at a key time in the election cycle.


In order to help lock down crossover Republican votes and defuse concerns about jobs, Obama’s reform plan should not kick in until U.S. unemployment falls below 6 percent.


Obama’s presidency will be strengthened by a bold legislative initiative on immigration reform. By working with Republican senators in key states mired in immigration issues while maintaining the support of his Democratic base, Obama has the opportunity to maintain legislative momentum.


In short, Obama would do well to consult the previous administration’s domestic policy playbook.


John D. Graham is dean of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and author of “Bush on the Home Front.” He served as associate administrator of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, and prior to that spent 16 years at Harvard’s School of Public Health. Readers may write him at SPEA, Indiana University, 1315 East Tenth Street, Bloomington, Ind. 47405.

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