The New York Times’ White House correspondent Michael Shear joined me today to discuss the president’s free fall in support.
HH: Joined now by Michael Shear, White House correspondent for the New York Times. Hello, Michael, welcome back.
MS: Happy to be back. How are you?
HH: I’m good. I want to talk a little bit about the piece you wrote last week on the deportation policy shift being signaled by the President. But before I get there, it’s part of a piece that I think goes back to a piece your colleague, Peter Baker, wrote on February 12th, 2010, wherein he wrote, “With much of his legislative agenda stalled in Congress, President Obama and his team are preparing an array of actions using his executive power to advance energy, environmental, fiscal and other domestic policy priorities.” The President’s gone into sort of unilateral mode, hasn’t he?
MS: Well, he has. I mean, you know, in that, the way the White House describes that is as essentially a reaction to what they claim is a Congress that has all but refused, especially in the last couple of years, to do anything, right? That’s the way they would describe it. Now you know, the Republicans in the House, especially, and in the Senate as well, would counter that by saying, by blaming Senator Reid, who’s in charge of the Senate agenda, obviously, for holding up a whole series of things that the House has actually passed through under John Boehner. But in any event, the White House spin would be look, you know, in light of a Congress that isn’t able to pass anything for whatever reason, we’re going to go ahead and do some things that we can do on our own.
HH: So Michael Shear, without commenting either way on any of these, I just wanted to list the unilateralisms. The President directed the Department of Justice not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. He directed the Department of Justice not to enforce immigration laws against the Dreamers. He has not approved Keystone. He’s got the recess appointments when the Senate wasn’t in recess. Now, he’s got the new deportation policy. You also wrote a story on his new overtime rules. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the changes to Obamacare. When does this pattern, not any of the particulars in it, but when does the pattern become an issue in politics?
MS: Well, I think, look, I think part of it is going to depend on which side is better at defining those actions in the way they want people to understand them, right? So the Democratic definition of those actions would be to hope voters see a president that is, you know, impatient and unwilling to let his priorities be held hostage by a recalcitrant Congress, and a recalcitrant Republican Party that has decided that for political, crass political reasons, they don’t want him to achieve anything. The Republican definition of this would be, as I think maybe you would kind of sympathize more with, is a president who is overreaching, who’s reaching beyond his Constitutional powers, or reaching beyond his legal powers to sort of go around the will of the people as represented by a Congress. And so I think both of those, both sides are going to try to make that case in the next eight months as to which way they want people and voters, especially, to view that. And I think you know, what we’ll see is in the midterm elections, the voters will actually be able to decide which of those kind of views of those actions do they believe.
HH: And that’s where I come to the deportation story that you wrote.
HH: If he actually stopped deporting people for whom there were deportation orders with, the Obamacare variations that he authorizes on almost a weekly basis, or at least Secretary Sebelius authorizes…
HH: …have sort of set the frame into which any of these will now be understood. Can he really afford just to unilaterally stop deporting people?
MS: Well, I think the answer to that is absolutely not. He cannot afford to do that. And in fact, in my many conversations with administration officials on this subject, it is in fact the administration officials who would agree with you wholeheartedly, I think, that they do not have the legal authority to simply wave a magic wand and stop these deportations, notwithstanding the very, very small you know, kind of carve-out that they made for the so-called Dreamers, which were these kids that were brought to the United States as infants, essentially, and never really made the decision to be illegal, but they sort of became illegal because their parents brought them. With that exception in mind, I mean, there is almost nobody in the administration who thinks that they can simply, you know, by executive fiat, just stop deporting people. It is, you know, there is a lot of pressure on them from the activists in the community to do something like that. But the people I’ve talked to in the administration think that that would A) not be legal, and B) would subject them to the kind of political backlash that would be just politically devastating to the President.
HH: Here are two paragraphs from Michael Shear’s story of a couple of days ago. “Mr. Obama’s decision to review immigration enforcement is a recognition of the election year dangers his party faces in an attempt by White House officials to reassure Latino supporters that the President is not immune to their pain. It is also a message to House Republicans to stop blocking passage of the stalled immigration overhaul. But it remains unclear whether Mr. Obama can do anything that would satisfy Latino activists without providing fuel for Republican accusations that he is baldly sidestepping the nation’s laws.” What I’m getting at, Michael Shear, is I don’t know that that’s a Republican accusation anymore. I think that’s becoming a deeply-embedded concern because of Obamacare. You can get away with the Dreamers and the DOMA stuff…
HH: But the Obamacare back and forth, change this, change that, delay, delay, decide, that’s really framed him as willful, hasn’t it?
MS: I guess so. I mean, I think, you know, I’m not public opinion expert, but my sense would be that it would depend on the community that you’re talking to, and the group of people that you’re asking that question of, right? And I think there’d be probably a large group in this country that is still very much supporters of his, you know, the core Democrats and maybe some independents who probably look at that stuff, the Obamacare stuff, and it’s all sort of white noise and they don’t pay much attention. But as you, I think, would point out, there is a large group of, different large group of people, a lot of core Republicans and maybe a lot of independents, who have been annoyed and offended by the changes that have been made. And look, the administration would claim all of those changes are perfectly legal and that it’s a matter of you know, kind of altering regulations, which you know, presidents have done historically through administrative power throughout the years. But as you say, it’s left a bitter taste in a lot of people’s mouths that he’s maybe going beyond what he’s able, should be able to do.
HH: Yeah, it’s a question of when does annoyed and offended become alarmed, and I’ll come back after break and continue the conversation with Michael Shear. You can follow Michael on Twitter @shearm.
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HH: Michael Shear, when we went to break, we were talking about the President’s dilemma and quandary. He’s down at levels that only have seen the names Nixon in 1974 and Bush in 2006 reach.
HH: And Democrats are panicked. On top of that today, Russia annexed Crimea, the first annexation in Europe since World War II. And if you run through, I ran through some of his domestic stuff in the first hour, you know, failure to help the Iran Green Revolution, the status of forces agreement did not happen in Iraq, Libya fell apart after his leading from behind, serious, chaotic and bloody, China just announced a 12% rise in their Defense spending, challenging Japan on the islands, Russia takes Crimea, how low can this president go? There isn’t any good news here at all.
MS: Well, I think as you note, you know, the panic is starting to set in among Democrats for that very reason. Look, you know, the fortunes of the President, the people in the President’s party, the electoral fortunes, are very much tied to his number. And I talked to a senior Democrat on the Hill the other day who said look, you know, tell me what the President’s number in six or seven months, and I’ll tell you how we’ll do. And if it’s still 41 or 42, we’re not going to do very well. If it’s 46 or 47, we’ll do better. And you know, that is a reality for the President. And as you point out by listing not only the challenges abroad, but then the challenges at home, I mean, it’s very hard for a president facing those kinds of issues to turn those numbers around.
HH: Does anyone, Michael Shear, have confidence in him? Do you run into anyone running around saying I think President Obama’s going to turn this around, he’s a great leader, it’s just been bad circumstances?
MS: Well, I mean, look. I think if you look at the polls, that there is, this president still does have a core of support. I mean, this country is very, we always say that this country is very divided, but you know, there is a group of people in the middle who are independents or who sort of lean one direction or the other. But there are cores, right? Even at the depths of President George Bush’s problems in, say, 2006, as you know, when the Iraq war was really going badly, you know, there was still 35-40% of the American public that would have vowed support for and confidence in President Bush. And I think there’s a similar group now for President Obama. Those are never the problem people, you know, in sort of current modern American politics. Those people, you can sort of take for granted. It’s really the question of that group of 20% of the people in the middle that you know, are the ones that decide elections, and are the ones that decide whether you have a kind of poor rating or something better.
HH: It looks like they’ve left him right now.
MS: Well, a lot of those people I think have, and you know, the question is whether he can turn it around first in time for the elections, and then in time for his legacy.
HH: Michael Shear of the New York Times, thanks for joining us.
End of interview.