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Can Obama split the GOP?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Mon June 25, 2012
Julian Zelizer says President Obama's immigration move won't fracture the GOP.
Julian Zelizer says President Obama's immigration move won't fracture the GOP.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There's a long history of presidents who divide the opposition party over policy
  • Julian Zelizer says Obama's immigration policy change is aimed at GOP divisions on issue
  • He says it's not likely to work as well for Obama as it did for his predecessors
  • Zelizer: People are so focused on economy that other issues may not resonate

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- When President Obama had his back to the wall after a month of bad economic news, he tried to change the national conversation by shifting attention toward the issue of immigration. Through a directive issued by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to stop deporting some young undocumented immigrants, the administration made one of its boldest moves in four years in this area of policy.

In doing so, President Obama is clearly hoping to exploit the deep division that has existed within the GOP for decades on immigration reform.

One faction of the party, with strong support from the business community, has pushed for Congress to liberalize immigration policy on the basis that this will bring great economic benefit as well as positive electoral rewards for the party in states such as Texas.

The other faction, less hospitable to reform, has a strong nativist tilt and seeks much more stringent laws to crack down on illegal immigration and even curb the flow of legal newcomers.

Through his use of executive power to achieve this objective, Obama hopes to place the GOP in an uncomfortable bind, forcing the party to take a stand one way or another, leaving it in a tough position going into November.

President Obama is not the first person to use the power of the presidency to exploit divisions in the opposition party. During the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of the split within the GOP between progressives from the Midwest who favored social legislation and economic regulation and other Republicans who were strongly opposed to any kind of government intervention.

Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, turned to national security after World War II for similar political purposes.

As Truman pushed for an aggressive stand by the United States in the Cold War, calling on Congress to fund assistance to anti-communist forces abroad, he knew that Republicans were torn between the growing number of internationalists who supported this position, like Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, and the old line Midwestern isolationists who did not support the growth of the national security state at any cost.

Both FDR and Truman benefited from exploiting these divisions in 1936 and 1948, making the GOP look like laggards on both issues.

Republican Dwight Eisenhower turned the table on Democrats in 1956 and 1957 when he moved out front on civil rights legislation. In this period, the Democratic Party was deeply divided on what to do about racial inequality as members were split between Southern Democrats, who controlled the major committees of Congress and opposed civil rights legislation, and the growing number of Northern liberals in the House and Senate who wanted the federal government to protect the rights of African-Americans.

Richard Nixon played on the growing tensions among working-class Democrats over race relations, turning some voters in the Democratic Party against their own leadership and luring them into the GOP.

When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, he did the same, attracting some Republicans who were frustrated about the Watergate scandal, though he had little success in 1980 when Republican Ronald Reagan did the same to him by attracting disaffected Democrats with promises of a muscular national security state, tax cuts and deregulation.

During the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton championed more military intervention in areas like Bosnia and Kosovo, which aggravated the splits between younger neoconservative Republicans, who wanted the United States to be more aggressive overseas, and others in the party who wanted the United States to pull back from international obligations.

In 1996, this weakened the ability of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole to use the national security advantage against the Democrats. George W. Bush used the technique on national security in 2004 by calling for a strong interventionist position at a time Democrats were divided between those who were strongly critical of the Iraq War and others who were more supportive.

Can President Obama enjoy the same kind of success that came from these efforts? Probably not.

Regardless of whether this is good policy, it is unlikely to reap major political benefits even though the polls suggest the public is on President Obama's side. The first reason is that this decision was made through the executive branch's authority, thereby diminishing the payback that comes from winning a battle on the legislative front, which requires building political support and mobilizing the public behind an idea.

The second is that President Obama and the Democrats have been less than effective at immigration reform until now, in the eyes of immigration advocates.

Many organizations have been disappointed with the president's unwillingness to make this a priority issue in previous years. Given this history, combined with the announcement coming in an election year, many Latinos might still be skeptical about how much the president has changed and what he would do with a second term.

Finally, there is the problem of timing. Given the fact that the economy keeps moving in the wrong direction, it is difficult to exploit divisions in the opposition party on issues that are not front and center for many voters, including voters in swing states that will determine the election.

His decision on immigration can easily turn into an issue that Republicans use against the president by saying that it is further evidence that he is not primarily focused on the biggest challenges of the day (as they did with health care).

Presidents do have the ability to exploit party divisions and move closer to election victory as a result. But in this case, it is unclear whether Obama will join the list of presidents who have done this successfully.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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