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His way or the highway

Obama could torpedo immigration reform

– President Obama has grown testy about reporters who have a “default position” that policy debates have two sides. “On almost every issue,” he recently told The New Republic, “it’s, ‘Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree’ – as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?”

This is the best description yet of Obama’s second-term governing vision: the invincible assumption of his own rightness.

On the budget, Obama has applied this vision with rigor and consistency. In his second inaugural address, he defended entitlements against the assault of Social Darwinists. The goal was not to engage his congressional opponents but to delegitimize them.

On immigration reform, the divisions have not yet similarly hardened. In fact, the prospects are surprisingly good. Leaders of both parties seem to recognize that our immigration system is inhumane and economically counterproductive. A bipartisan group of eight senators has set out principles of reform. Republican senators and staffers express the rarest of opinions in Washington: trust for a leader of the other party. They generally believe that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the immigration subcommittee, wants a bipartisan solution.

Behind this fragile consensus is a remarkable, yearlong effort by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to move the GOP beyond its suicidal embrace of immigrant self-deportation. Rubio has been willing to risk his tea party credibility in making the conservative case for reform. The main source of backlash against George W. Bush’s failed attempt in 2007 was the Fox News/talk radio commercial complex. Rubio has taken his argument – that the current system amounts to “de facto amnesty” – directly to Hannity, O’Reilly, Levin and crew, leaving behind a string of the converted or neutralized. While some on the right remain unreconciled, there is at least some hope that they can be marginalized.

A lot of details remain to be ironed out, and some will require considerable heat and steam. What will be the exact penalties paid by undocumented workers to gain their pre-citizenship legal status? Will that status bring coverage under Obamacare? In spite of such sticky debates, staffers believe a comprehensive immigration bill could pass the Senate by July.

But now enters Obama. If he chooses – if he prefers a wedge issue to a legislative accomplishment – he could easily polarize this most polarizing of issues. It wouldn’t take much to undermine Rubio and spook the House Republican caucus. Obama could push for quick green cards for undocumented workers, leapfrogging them over people currently in line. He could limit the scope of guest worker programs. He could downplay border security and employer verification – which many Republicans regard as the guarantees that current problems won’t be repeated in 20 years.

Even Republicans who support comprehensive immigration legislation view the proper phasing of reform as essential. Addressing the current immigration backlog, along with providing a realistic path to citizenship for undocumented workers, will eventually require a massive expansion in green cards. But first it will require creation of an immigration system capable of handling it. If Obama pushes a fast pass to legalization above other reform priorities, he could fracture Rubio’s nascent coalition.

Which may be the point. So far, White House contact with Rubio and his staff has been minimal and perfunctory. Why elevate a possible Republican presidential candidate, with a powerful immigrant story, who can explain his views on Univision without a translator? Wouldn’t it be easier for Obama, once again, to push past the red lines of his opponents, then declare their opposition to be evidence of irrationality?

It would, unless the president actually wants an immigration deal, which would require him to do something he finds difficult: recognize that an argument can have another side.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post.