Obama's Big Dare: What His Immigration Move Was Really About

PHOTO: Viridiana Carrizales of San Antonio, Texas, Jose Patino, of Phoenix, and his girlfriend Reyna Montoya of Mesa, react during a watch party for President Obamas speech on immigration in Phoenix, Nov. 20, 2014.PlayDavid Wallace/The Republic/AP Photo
WATCH 3 Stipulations Undocumented Immigrants Must Follow to Stay in US

President Obama spent about 12 minutes Thursday night arguing an emotional case for why he's making the most sweeping changes to the nation's immigration laws in more than a generation -- acting, of course, without the assent of Congress.

The move has vast implications for millions of individuals and their families, with short- and long-term impacts on the nation’s economy, political demographics and Washington’s perpetual power struggle.

At its most basic level, President Obama is offering his opponents in Congress a giant dare.

He's daring Republicans to offer their sharpest reactions. Everything from government shutdowns to lawsuits to, yes, impeachment will be in the mix, with the driving consensus that the party needs to do something to register its extreme disapproval.

"Congress certainly shouldn't shut down our government again just because we disagree on this," the president said, anticipating those reactions and reviving painful memories for the GOP.

He's daring them to offer and pass a different set of policies. The fact that the substance of the executive order won't take effect for six months gives the new GOP majority in Congress another half year to do what Congress hasn't been able to do over the decade immigration reform has been on the agenda.

"To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill," the president said.

Looming over everything in Republicans' responses are memories of the last presidential campaign, where "self-deportation" came to define Mitt Romney’s response to immigration. Long-term demographic challenges for the GOP weren't fixed by midterm victories.

Gathered in Florida this week for what was supposed to be a post-election celebration, Republican governors mostly wanted to talk about anything other than immigration.

The president is daring his opponents to capitalize on this month's election results in questioning his power -- up to and including his power to mobilize the public behind a brash move.

The president's action is filled with contradictions, starting with his long-ago promises to roll back President George W. Bush's executive expansions. They roll right through his specific protestations that only a "king" or an "emperor" would be able to act broadly to effectively legalize the status of undocumented immigrants without congressional action.

Then there’s the contradiction in the president’s own style. He rose to prominence on the expectation that he’d be an antidote to the polarizing Bush years. He even harbored hopes of bipartisan immigration reform being the crowning achievement of his second term, until just months ago.

Republicans have dismissed the president’s actions as those of everything from a dictator to a toddler. Sen. Ted Cruz is likening him to a monarch; Gov. Bobby Jindal said he's having a "temper tantrum."

Though the president is clearly frustrated, this is not an act of petulance. His move has been telegraphed for months, and is calculated to transfer the frustrations he’s felt so acutely to another side of the aisle.

The onus will now be on Republicans to respond. They will have to balance the competing demands of the party base and the future GOP leaders hope to have.

Republicans have labeled the move "amnesty." The president’s response: "Amnesty is the immigration system we have today -- millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time."

In the end, the president is making a grand gamble that's more remarkable for the fact that it's coming just weeks after he took an electoral drubbing. He’s calculating that, even at this stage of his presidency, it's his vision and his coalition that can win a passionate national debate he has just reinvigorated.