President Obama's decision to go it alone on immigration reform ignited a debate that won't be decided until November: Is he guilty of executive overreach or a principled reformer forced to act by Washington gridlock?
The answer to that question could very well decide who controls the Senate during the final two years of his presidency.
Democrats and Republicans alike trumpeted the president’s pledge to take executive action on immigration by summer’s end — but for entirely different reasons.
Progressives are essentially running against a do-nothing House, and conservatives are framing the president as so incompetent that he is forced to bend the law to enact his agenda.
“I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to accomplish. How does he think this leads to a successful political outcome?” wondered GOP pollster David Winston.
“He was basically announcing he didn’t know how to work with Congress,” Winston said. “To many people, it will look like he’s not making any effort to get things back on track. That will hurt Democrats in November."
Not surprisingly, the White House had a different take.
“Are you kidding me?” said an incredulous senior administration official when asked whether Obama was contributing to the chronic Washington impasse.
“How long is he supposed to wait for Republicans?" the official added. "He doesn’t have an infinite amount of time here.”
The problem for the White House, however, is that Obama is not operating from a position of strength.
A new poll from Quinnipiac University found that one-third of Americans believe Obama is the worst president since World War II, comfortably ahead of runner-up George W. Bush, who 28 percent said was the worst.
Driving that disillusionment, multiple polls have found, is that most voters believe the president is not competent enough to run the federal government.
And if the electorate thinks Obama can’t get anything done, that doesn’t bode well for Democrats come November.
Even conservatives sympathetic to the president on immigration reform were not pleased with his go-it-alone approach.
“He’s been totally absent in the legislative process. The only thing he has done is grandstand on the issue and pander to Hispanic voters,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
“Unilateral administrative action at this time would only serve to antagonize Republicans,” he added.
How voters respond to Obama’s immigration blueprint depends on the reach of his plan.
With legislative prospects dead on Capitol Hill, the White House is expected to pursue aggressive steps that could prompt a barrage of legal challenges.
The options the president is weighing include: expanding his deferral of deportations of Dream Act-eligible immigrants to others living in the U.S. illegally, giving a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants who join the military and allowing more hardship exemptions for undocumented people to stay in the country indefinitely.
The Supreme Court handed Obama defeats recently on his power to make recess appointments and on Obamacare's birth-control mandate. Republicans were quick to paint Obama's immigration strategy as tone deaf, given the slap he received from the High Court.
“We're all frustrated that [immigration reform] hasn't moved in the House, but [Obama] dismissing genuine concern about unilateral executive action doesn't help,” complained Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who supported the immigration bill passed last year in the upper chamber.
Democrats maintain that the party will be rewarded for acting on an issue that has the support of a wide swath of voters.
“I don’t think there will be a lot of people who vote against a candidate because they feel Obama overreached if they agree with him on the policy,” said Democratic pollster Margie Omero.
“He’s taking action on something that actually has a majority of support,” she added. “What doesn’t have widespread appeal is bringing the government to a halt.”
But Obama is hardly being diplomatic with his newly aggressive style, often mocking conservatives for their intransigence rather than engaging in a serious debate on how his actions would benefit Americans. His go-it-alone approach could damage his likability and weigh down Democrats up for re-election.
"[Republicans] are arguing that they can’t act because they’re mad at me about using my executive authority too broadly," Obama said dismissively from the White House Rose Garden.
"This also makes no sense," he added. "I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing."