The Unpersuasive President

Despite moving sharply toward his opponents’ position on immigration, the president again failed at the essential task of his office.

Leah Millis / Reuters

“Presidential power is the power to persuade.” So wrote the famous student of presidential power, Richard Neustadt, in 1960.

This is one power that Donald Trump has never appreciated. President Trump uses words often and uses them spectacularly: to mobilize his core followership, to bully and belittle opponents, to tweet his hurts and grievances. What he does not do is argue a case to change minds and gain consent.

That gap in the presidential repertoire of power was on view in last night’s State of the Union address—and especially in its core policy argument, Trump’s case for his latest immigration-reform proposal.

Trump has moved far and fast on immigration. He is now proposing a path to citizenship for the DACA population, people who entered the United States illegally as minors. He has extended the deadline to qualify for the program, boosting the estimated beneficiaries from 800,000 to potentially 1.8 million. While he suggests remaking the immigration system so as to curtail the right of new immigrants to sponsor relatives—putting an end to the sponsorship of siblings, nieces, nephews—that change would not go into effect until all the 4 million people who have already applied have entered the country, a process that critics warn could take as long as 17 years.

The only change in the direction of immigration restriction that would go immediately into effect is the end of the diversity visa lottery. Yet even this move will not reduce America’s total immigration intake: The 50,000 to 100,000 slots at issue would be reallocated to speed the entry of the 4 million relatives in the sponsorship queue.

In other words, if Trump’s proposal were accepted, his first term would feature the biggest immigration amnesty since 1986; no near-term reduction in numbers; and the tilt of the whole system even further in favor of family reunification. He would trade all that for money for his boondoggle border wall. He did not even ask for more workplace enforcement. (Business lobbies do not like effective enforcement, and therefore neither do most congressional Republicans.)

No president has moved this far, this fast, toward his opponents’ position on a domestic-policy matter since Bill Clinton seized welfare reform from Republicans in the middle 1990s. Yet unlike Clinton—who made welfare reform the centerpiece of his devastatingly effective 1996 State of the Union address—Trump’s rhetorical effort at persuasion almost certainly failed.

We’ll know better when the poll results begin to appear later today, but I’ll step out onto the limb here and predict that Trump will not shift immigration waverers into his column. I’ll predict that—despite all his concessions—he will not even succeed in making himself look moderate and the Democrats extreme on this issue.

Trump cannot reason, and his writers will not and do not. In arguing against chain migration, Trump made the following point.

The fourth and final pillar protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration. Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children.  

Many who heard these words must have wondered: What is the president talking about? How does it protect the nuclear family to curtail the sponsorship of cousins?

Yet the president has a case! As the system has clogged under weight of numbers, the waiting time for spouses of U.S. citizens has stretched. A successful application regularly takes more than a year. The spouses of resident aliens cannot get a green card at all. There really is a tradeoff here, with costs that many Americans will care about—but Trump did not explain that tradeoff, and so likely failed to persuade even those who stood most directly to benefit from his plan.

Trump’s proposal maneuvers Democrats into an extremist position. Democrats shut down the U.S. government earlier this month over two issues: children’s health insurance and protection of the unlawful immigrants they call “Dreamers.” Once the government shut, the Republicans instantly conceded on the first—leaving Democrats in the awkward position of denying services to citizens on behalf of the illegal entrants.

Leaders of the Democratic Party—and especially the 2020 presidential hopefuls—now seem to regard almost any form of enforcement against people illegally present inside the United States as a racist denial of human rights. The only change party leaders will contemplate is for higher total numbers and lower legal standards. Two weeks ago, The New York Times published an op-ed denouncing the deportation of a man who had lost his green card after being convicted and serving prison time for eight counts of wire fraud. Under U.S. law, his crime should have cost him his residency rights. Twelve years later, he’s still here—and the possibility that the law might yet go into effect is presented as an outrage in the country’s most important newspaper. This is not a freakish outlier opinion either. On January 29, a judge in Manhattan released the alien in question from detention, complaining to thunderous courtroom applause that he had been deprived of his “freedom to say goodbye”—which would seem quite an unnecessary freedom for one who apparently will never be made to leave.

Yet Trump cannot make a political resource of his opponents’ rising radicalism and intransigence. His trademark truculent imperiousness inevitably casts him as the unreasoning extremist. He cannot forbear falsifying his case even when he is right.

Building an immigration system upon sponsorship of extended families has a lot wrong with it, but it is not an important risk factor for terrorism, as the president tried to argue. The overwhelming majority of the Islamic terrorists who have struck the United States since 9/11 are here because their parents immigrated to the United States. The most heinous terrorist to enter on a family-reunification visa was the wife of the San Bernardino shooter, himself the native-born son of immigrant parents. Trump’s proposals, once fully in effect in the 2030s, would improve the skill level of the immigration population and possibly reduce the risk of radicalization among their offspring—but that’s a guess, not a promise.

Meanwhile, in a speech that alludes to the worst gun massacre in U.S. history but offers not a word of policy in response, it seems ludicrously disproportionate to present a huge immigration-policy reform as a response to a terrorist attack that killed nobody and seriously injured only the would-be bomber.

Overhauling the U.S. immigration system in the 21st century will require major changes. An economy on the cusp of revolutions in robotics and artificial intelligence should not import huge numbers of low-skilled workers. A society that has just laid the foundations of a national health-care system cannot afford immigrants who will, over their working lifetimes, pay far less in taxes than they will draw in benefits from the Social Security and Medicare systems.

But major changes only happen if they can command broad support from many different constituencies. Donald Trump acts as if he believed his own fantasy that he won a landslide victory in 2016 and—as he said at the opening of his speech—as if he “speaks on behalf of the American people.” Neither of those things is true. On immigration, he does not even speak on behalf of the majority of his own party. His style of power is furtive, clandestine, and extra-legal—perfect for compromising the FBI, not so good for passing big laws. Reforming immigration will take a very big law indeed. President Trump is not nearly a big enough man for that job.