President Obama is going to detail some executive actions he plans to take on immigration in a speech tonight, and you may have noticed that the debate over this move is almost completely void of discussion of the particulars. Instead, we're discussing whether Obama is exceeding his powers. That's an important question to address, but it also frees Republicans (for the moment anyway) of having to visibly argue for things like deporting the parents of kids who are already allowed to stay in the United States.
One thing you'll notice as you watch coverage of the issue is that Republicans are seriously pissed off at Obama. And not in the faux outrage, pretend umbrage way—they are genuinely, sincerely angry. And while there may be a few here or there whose blood boils at the thought of an undocumented immigrant parent not living in constant terror of immigration authorities, for the vast majority it isn't about the substance at all. So what is it about? Here's my attempt at explaining it.
Obama is not showing sufficient deference to their midterm election win. Republicans just won an election, and like any party that wins an election, they feel that the American people validated all of their positions and everything they'd like to do, and rejected those of Democrats. There are reasonable arguments to be made against this belief. For instance, you could point out that since turnout in this election was an abysmal 36 percent and Republicans got a little over 50 percent of the votes for the House, they actually got a thumbs-up from only 19 percent of the electorate, which isn't exactly "the American people." Or you could note that if you add up the votes received by all 100 senators in the new GOP majority, the Democrats actually got 5 million more votes. These things may be true, but they don't reduce the Republicans' sincere belief that they have the people behind them. Whether they actually expected Obama to put aside his entire agenda because of the election, the fact that he shows no interest in doing so is obviously maddening to them.
Obama is backing them into a political corner. Republicans would frankly prefer not to have to talk about immigration at all, outside election-year pitches to primary voters about broken borders. Their fundamental dilemma is that on the local level, most of them have constituencies that are deeply hostile to immigrants and opposed to comprehensive reform, yet on the national level, the party must make inroads with Hispanic voters to have hopes of winning the White House. A big confrontation over immigration puts their crazy nativists like Steve King on the news and serves to convince those Hispanic voters that the GOP has nothing but contempt for them and people like them. Those crazy people are convinced that a big part of the motivation for Obama's move is to create new Democratic voters (which it wouldn't do), while the more sensible ones worry that it will make their task of winning Hispanic votes even harder (which it will do).
This move also seizes the agenda from them, in a way that divides Republicans against themselves. As Lisa Mascaro and Michael Memoli reported in an excellent article in today's L.A. Times, "Republican leaders who had hoped to focus on corporate tax reform, fast-track trade pacts, repealing the president's healthcare law and loosening environmental restrictions on coal are instead being dragged into an immigration skirmish that they've tried studiously to avoid for most of the last year."
The only real way for them to stop him is to shut down the government, and they're also probably mad that he has forced them into that internal and external debate. Not only are they now arguing amongst themselves about it (again), it means they have to put up with a lot of "Are you going to shut down the government?" questions from reporters, which have as their subtext, "Are you going to prove all over again what a bunch of reckless maniacs you are?" Their attempts to argue that if there's a shutdown it will be Obama's fault and not theirs will inevitably be rejected by both the press and the public, leading to even more resentment, since they feel as though they'll be blamed for something that is his fault.
Aggressive Obama is bad Obama. Let's face it, many if not most Republicans have never considered Barack Obama a legitimate president. This applies not just to Republican voters—49 percent of whom believed that ACORN stole the 2012 election for him, which would have been particularly difficult for the organization to accomplish given that it ceased to exist in 2010—but to its elected officials as well. Although it has calmed down of late, let's not forget just how many years Obama spent trying to persuade people that he is, in fact, an American, including producing his birth certificate. Republicans have in the past viewed any Democratic president as having suspect legitimacy, but it's been worse with Obama than prior presidents.
For that reason, Republicans have found even the most mundane exercise of his presidential power to be deeply disturbing. His bold move of hiring people to work on the White House staff was met with horrified cries that he had created "czars" who were wielding despotic and unaccountable power. When he set rules for federal contractors, as every president does, they were aghast. These kinds of things didn't bother them when Republican presidents did them not only because they agreed with the substance of whatever those presidents were doing, but also because they regarded those presidents' power as legitimately held. Over time, the narrative of Obama's "lawlessness" took hold on the right, and ended up being applied to almost any executive branch action they didn't like. In this case, he actually is approaching the limits of his authority, which makes it all the worse.
Obama is making them feel impotent. This is where all the other pieces come together. Being in the opposition party can be frustrating, because your role is fundamentally not to do things, but to try to stop the president from doing things. That's an important task, but it isn't quite as satisfying as remaking the country to suit your vision. Republicans' greatest fear about this is that Obama will go ahead and do what he wants and they won't be able to stop him, even though they worked so hard to gain full control of Congress after six long years. They won the election, his approval ratings are low, they firmly believe they're right, and yet this president they loathe so much is about to just walk all over them anyway. No wonder they're mad.