Presidential leadership involves public prestige or professional reputation, but in the end, both prestige and reputation stem, directly or indirectly, from the pivotal role played by public opinion. Only the court of public opinion cuts across partisan polarization. Obama keeps hammering it home that he will use every bit of power he has through executive action to solve problems the public cares about in the face of legislative inaction. Well, this strategy has worked — it has triggered real legislative action.
On Thursday the Senate introduced gun-control legislation, and today the same body introduced a bipartisan bill for sweeping immigration reform, giving up to 11 million undocumented immigrants the chance to apply for American citizenship. While this bipartisan immigration team wanted to unroll its sweeping reform before Obama unrolls his tomorrow, the fact that New York’s Senator Charles Schumer is on board says a lot. The participation of the most conspicuous Democratic member of Congress at Obama’s inauguration makes it doubtful the White House and Congress are too far apart.
What’s becoming clear is that Obama has gained enough power to inspire action from loyal and skilled Democrats such as Schumer and Senator Dianne Feinstein. Obama’s greatest chance of legislative success is to have them push the Republicans toward action. What Democrats and Republicans alike realize is that it’s all about 2016. As Senator McCain blurted, the Republicans “are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.”
Obama’s proposal tomorrow may show that there will be some wrangling over streamlining citizenship and/or less stringent enforcement on the border, but not much. And if Obama succeeds in passing a serious piece of legislation like immigration reform, not only will he increase the Democrats’ chances of catching this key constituency, but he will be the first president since Ronald Reagan to exhibit such presidential leadership by using public opinion against Congress during his second term.