A Pen, Phone, and a Golf Club
President Obama gave a post-election press conference in which he pretty much took a pass on all of that stuff about acknowledging the public's rebuke of his party or seeking common ground with the Republicans who will now control a co-equal branch of government.
Instead, he "reiterated...that he intends to use his executive authority to stem deportations of some undocumented immigrants before the end of the year."
In other words: amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, on the unilateral authority of the president. There is little need to analyze the legality of this. It is an obvious attempt to treat Congress as an annoying obstacle rather than as the branch of government that actually writes the laws.
It is just as obviously an attempt to provoke a constitutional crisis. Even Republicans sympathetic to immigration reform will feel that it is necessary to block the president from unilaterally imposing his own policies. As The Federalist's David Harsanyi observes, "there is almost no doubt this would plunge DC into both political and legal crisis. Which might very well be the point. The White House does best when it finds new ways to vilify conservatives. Immigration is a perfect way to initiate the fight."
Indeed, we find the fever swamps of the far left egging Obama on to deliberately provoke impeachment: "if Republicans want to impeach him for taking executive action to stop being the deporter-in-chief, he should welcome them with open arms. It would be a golden opportunity for Obama to demonstrate his willingness to put something of his own at risk to stand with those who feel he has abandoned them." Oh, and they also want Obama to bypass Congress on global warming regulations: "If congressional Republicans want to impeach him for not betraying future generations, then, once again, he should welcome them with open arms.... Let those who would attack him simply for being who he is show their true colors and stand the judgment of history."
True, this is an article in Salon, by a guy who also writes for al-Jazeera. So it's not exactly mainstream. But it's the only calculation that explains Obama's apparent eagerness to precipitate a constitutional crisis. The idea is to provoke an all-out war with the new Republican majority in the hopes of making them look like the ones who are extreme and unreasonable.
Yet this is delusional bluster, because what else has Obama been doing for the past four years, if not vilifying Republicans as "obstructionists" and a "do-nothing Congress," even as Harry Reid blocked all of their legislation? And what was the result? A massive wave in favor of the Republicans.
If Obama thinks he's going to win this fight, he is wildly overestimating his own popularity. More to the point, he is overestimating the continued forbearance of people in his own party (and even, eventually, the press). As they begin to realize how badly he is weighing them down, expect to see more Democrats in Congress publicly criticizing the president, hinting that he should back down, and in a few cases—Angus King in Maine, Joe Manchin in West Virginia—considering a defection from the party.
Mitch McConnell has a big piece of leverage to use against them. Under Harry Reid, Democrats weakened the filibuster and a whole host of other rules that used to give some real power to the Senate minority. Either they couldn't look forward far enough to project the day when they would lose their majority—or they were counting on Republicans to be magnanimous and restore the old rules. McConnell can always promise that yes, he will restore the old system and make life in the minority a lot less difficult, but only so long as Senate Democrats back him up on a few key issues like this one—which are, after all, merely attempts to protect the constitutional prerogatives of the Senate itself. After all, why bother wrangling about Senate rules if Congress has been made irrelevant?
But I'm not sure it will even get to that, because the President has always been pretty free about making petulant threats to bypass his domestic opponents. He hasn't been very effective at following through. It would cut into his golf game too much. How long ago was it that he talked about having "a pen and a phone" and not being afraid to use them? Instead, he has spent a lot more time with a golf club in his hands.
In short, this is all bluster, and Obama doesn't have the political hand or personal initiative to back it up. Time to call his bluff.