By Robert A. Vella
In a functioning democracy, the battle of ideas prevents a real battle in blood. But, it is still a war of sorts pitting two or more opponents against each other on a highly contested field. Whether battles are fought militarily or politically, strategy and tactics determine the outcome. Leadership is crucial to developing smart strategies and employing effective tactics. American history provides a host of colorful characters who brilliantly excelled, and who failed miserably, in the art of warfare.
Yesterday, President Obama announced he will delay his much-anticipated executive actions on immigration reform until after the November elections. Let’s examine that decision from a war perspective.
Because the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has refused to take-up the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed last summer by the U.S. Senate, the President had intended to corner the GOP on this issue going into the midterms. Superficially, his strategy appeared sound. Knowing that his planned executive actions would trigger a reactionary backlash from the xenophobic Tea Party, possibly including another government shutdown, Republicans would have further damaged their brand just before the elections. The resulting swing in public opinion would have been sufficient to preserve Democratic Party control of the Senate.
However, that two-dimensional political calculation turned out to be wrong because it failed to see the larger picture. With Democrats defending the majority of Senate races this year, many of which are in red states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia which do not have large Hispanic populations, the electoral map isn’t in their favor. Furthermore, voter turnout during midterms is typically up to 20 points lower than in presidential elections. Low turnout elections generally favor Republicans and hurt Democrats because the electorate is more conservative (more liberals don’t vote consistently).
So, Obama had to delay his executive actions on immigration reform when the reality of the political situation belatedly sank in. Now, he has disappointed Latinos and his progressive base once again while reinforcing his negative image as a weak leader. Adding insult to injury is the President’s repeated refusal to embrace the kind of economic populism which could rally working-class Americans – across the political spectrum – towards the Democratic Party a la Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
If President Obama had been a Civil War general, he would have been Joseph E. Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign – conceding valuable territory through a pattern of retreat in a desperate attempt to stave off annihilation. Johnston was relieved of command before that final end came (at the hands of the reckless John Bell Hood), but his overly cautious generalship was not nearly as egregious as this president’s current blunder. Johnston was over-matched numerically, qualitatively, and logistically. President Obama suffers from none of these disadvantages. His political base is larger than his opponent’s, his party’s messaging has a much broader appeal, and his campaign organization is vastly superior with respect to technology.
The consummate strategist General Ulysses S. Grant understood the advantages he possessed and had the courage and determination to use them militarily, as did FDR politically. Each were eminently successful. Grant ended the bloodiest war in American history, and Roosevelt ended the worst economic crisis in American history. President Obama’s challenges, while still serious, are not nearly as great. Neither is his leadership.