President Barack Obama returned Friday to a trusted tactic — satisfying his political allies by not doing something.
Conservatives were angry when Janet Napolitano announced the administration would stop deporting certain undocumented immigrants, but they should have seen it coming. On issue after issue — gay rights, drug enforcement, Internet gambling, school achievement standards — the administration has chosen to achieve its goals by a method best described as passive-aggressive.
Rather than pushing new laws through a divided Congress to enact his agenda, Obama is relying on federal agencies to ignore, or at least not defend, laws that some of his important supporters — like Hispanic voters and the gay community — don’t like.
“If the president says we’re not going to enforce the law, there’s really nothing anyone can do about it,” University of Pennsylvania constitutional law professor Kermit Roosevelt said. “It’s clearly a political calculation.”
A White House official said the strategy is the result of a stalemate in Washington.
“We work to achieve our policy goals in the most effective and appropriate way possible,” the official said. “Often times, Congress has blocked efforts (ie [No Child Left Behind] and DREAM) and we look to pursue other appropriate means of achieving our policy goals. Sometimes this makes for less-than-ideal policy situations — such as the action we took on immigration — but the president isn’t going to be stonewalled by politics, he will pursue whatever means available to do business on behalf of American people.”
For Obama — and future presidents should Washington remain polarized to the point of perpetual inaction — it may be the only way to fulfill a range of campaign promises.
As of Friday, the federal government won’t deport undocumented immigrants under age 30 who came to the United States as children. It is a temporary, de facto implementation of a part of the stalled DREAM Act.
The result: a loud message to Hispanic voters to remember Obama in November.
On gay rights, too, the administration has asked agencies to do less. In February 2011, the Justice Department announced it would not defend DOMA against court challenges — an unusual step for the agency, which typically defends legal challenges to laws on the books. But the 1996 law, which bars the government from recognizing same-sex marriage, appears headed to the U.S. Supreme Court via either the 9th Circuit or 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
In August, Obama’s DHS announced it would no longer deport the noncitizen spouses of gay Americans — a direct contradiction to DOMA as well.
The tactic has its start in the earliest days of the administration. In October 2009, the Department of Justice announced it would not prosecute medical marijuana users or suppliers in states where it’s legal, despite the state laws contradicting federal law. Federal law generally trumps state law in such matters.