WASHINGTON, D.C., February 19, 2013 — Sometimes the political environment requires a president to act and act quickly, perhaps even unilaterally. There are other times when the moment calls for the president to use his bully pulpit to lead and call on Congress to act.
However, in some unique circumstances when Congress is already trying to act, a president should practice silence.
With that in mind, President Obama should take a backseat to the “Gang of 8” on immigration reform.
The Gang of 8 is a group of eight senators who came together to provide a bipartisan solution for immigration reform.
The four Democrats are: Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Robert Menendez (R-NJ), Chuck Schumer (R-NY), and Michael Bennet (R-CO).
The four Republicans are: Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a rare moment of bipartisanship in Congress, these eight senators unveiled their framework for immigration reform at a press conference in January. Their plan calls for expanding visas for high-tech workers, creating an employment verification system that will prevent the hiring of undocumented workers, tightening security along the Mexican border, and providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Their press conference on Capitol Hill came a day before President Obama’s immigration speech.
Their strategy to deliberately preempt the president is noteworthy because the indirect message was: Get out of the way Mr. President, we will lead on this issue.
Senators are men and women of pride like everyone else. They want to prove to the American public that they are competent. They do not like that their institution has only a 14 percent approval rating. Many of them are tired of watching President Obama scold them. “You know, Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time. They don’t wait until the night before. They’re not pulling all-nighters. They’re 13 and 10. You know, Congress can do the same thing…” President Obama said at a press conference on the debt ceiling in 2011.
Members of Congress generally do not like to see their president condescendingly suggest that his 10 and 13 year old daughters have more discipline than they do. So whenever they can, they will try to advance an agenda before he does, which is what the Gang of 8 is doing on immigration reform.
Meanwhile, instead of focusing on constructive ways to help them reach a solution, the Obama administration was busy preparing an alternative immigration reform proposal, as if the White House proposal will magically become law if the Gang of 8 fails.
The backup proposal was leaked and obtained by USA Today.
President Obama’s Chief of staff Denis McDonough defended the plan: “We’ll be prepared in the event that the bipartisan talks going on the Hill – which by the way we’re aggressively supporting – if those do not work out, then we’ll have an option we’re ready to put out there,” McDonough said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
Having a backup plan is always wise, but President Obama’s attempt to re-insert himself into the immigration reform debate seems self-serving. He wants sole ownership of the immigration issue. He needs it for his legacy. He would like to dominate the conversation with his big speeches and TV appearances so he can take full credit when the job is done, and remind the public that he is still in charge – the big boss calling the shots and running the show. It is a positioning strategy, and presidents often need to position themselves as leaders.
But at this critical juncture, the best form of leadership Obama can offer the Gang of 8 is silence. He can work the phones and offer to help but he should not be patronizing or overbearing. Doing so will intensify partisanship and make deal-making more difficult.
If members of Congress had not taken the initiative to reform the immigration system, then it would have been incumbent on the president to lead. But the Senate is already moving on the issue. The Gang of 8 is already making progress. Their blueprint is not much different from what President Obama is talking about. They are slowly building trust, and the prospect of a bipartisan package looks promising.
If President Obama wants to take full credit for immigration reform, he can do so after the signing ceremony. But what the Gang of 8 need from him right now is his silent encouragement.
So, please, Mr. President, get out of the way and let the “Gang of 8” finish the job.
Ayobami is a graduate student in George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
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