The Catch-22 of Barack Obama

Dealing with Congress could drive anyone nuts, but with his immigration move, Obama is crazy like a fox.

Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images
Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

As addled American bombardier Captain John Yossarian says of the one thing blocking his being grounded and saved from having to face combat again while he hangs upside down from the hatch of his bomber as it taxis yet again toward another mission, "That’s some catch, that Catch-22."

In that moment, director Mike Nichols, who died this week, leaving a gaping hole in America’s cultural landscape, offered an image to echo, underscore, and bring to life his bewildered hero’s words: War is lunacy. Even the definition of lunacy in war is lunacy: If you thought war was crazy, then you were clearly sane enough that you couldn’t be grounded for being crazy. If you flew your missions, then you were clearly crazy and you shouldn’t be flying them, but the minute you asked to stop because you were crazy, then you were sane and had to fly again.

If only a man who could bring such twisted logic to life like Nichols did had lived long enough to make a really good film about the tragic absurdity of the relationship between the current president of the United States and his counterparts on Capitol Hill. The rest of Nichols’s work suggests he would have been the right guy to make such a film. Who could capture the interwoven drama and pathos of the posturing and dysfunction like the director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the gravity of the stakes like the director of Angels in America, or the hilarity of the nonstop foolishness and political slapstick like the director of The Birdcage? Surely Nichols would see the potential in something that might at times seem like a remake of his classic version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple — this time starring U.S. President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

Having said that, maybe Nichols already did all that he needed to illustrate the perversity of the situation in which Barack Obama found himself yet again this week — the perversity that framed his announcement of plans to indefinitely postpone enforcing immigration laws that could have led to the deportation of perhaps 5 million illegal residents of the United States. Maybe, in retrospect, Nichols did all he needed to while making the underloved film Catch-22, the movie based on Joseph Heller’s genuinely great book. Because with an obstructionist Congress like the one Obama faces, the president can never win. If he tries to work with them, they will kill whatever he proposes. If he then recognizes this and tries to find a way to achieve what needs to be done via executive action, he is accused of circumventing Congress.

So, trying to work with Congress would make Obama crazy, but he would be crazy to try to work with Congress. If he seeks progress in Congress, he gets nowhere and is then accused of being a do-nothing president, but if he recognizes this and tries to do something on his own, he’ll be accused of being an out-of-control activist.

When Yossarian was confronted by the idea of the logical trap that put his life at risk in Heller’s book, "[he] was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle." Fortunately for the United States, Obama was not content with such passivity. His decision to use his executive authority to shield undocumented immigrants in much the same way as every other modern president has — though at a scale none had attempted — was the right thing to do. Not only was it consistent with the spirit of his predecessors’ actions, including those of Republican icons like Ronald Reagan, and their policy inclinations, including those of George W. Bush, but it was also, if anything, long overdue. The critique that Obama should have waited for the new Congress to take up this matter overlooks the six years of his administration thus far in which Congress did not act, the fact that the Senate passed a broad immigration reform bill with 57 votes, and the fact that the House never chose to take it up. Congress did not give Obama any choice but to use executive remedies to help ameliorate the case of these millions who have come to the United States, who have contributed to our society, who have often taken jobs that few Americans would accept, and who deserve to be treated humanely because that is not only the right thing to do morally, but also the very foundation of what has made America, a nation of immigrants, great.

When Boehner and his colleagues rail against the president, arguing that his decision was precipitous, ask how much longer they feel he should have waited during his eight years in office. Until there was only one year left? Until there were millions more living in limbo?

If anything, Obama did not act soon enough, and he did not offer reforms that were sweeping enough. His lawyers told him that were he to also determine not to prosecute the parents of those covered in this current measure, it would be a bridge too far. They told him it was not within his authority to provide health care or other social services for these people. And so he limited his action: 60 percent of America’s illegal immigrants are still unaffected by this action, and more than 6 million remain in limbo, at risk. It was not within his power to create a path to citizenship for this class of people who play an important role in American society. That is something we must wait for Congress to do. It is something many Republicans agree is important: Bush was in many ways more progressive on this issue than Obama was in his first years in office. (Obama deported more people in his first term than Bush did in two. Bush also advocated actively for immigration reform.)

But the only mobilization you will likely see from the Republicans on Capitol Hill will, fittingly in this Catch-22 world, be action decrying action: They will leap into the fray to condemn the president for leaping into the fray; they will go from being obstructionists to spending much of the next two years trying to actually undo things. They will go from being the do-nothing Congress to being the anti-Congress, a legislative black hole that seeks to swallow up action, initiative, and ideas. They will turn their two chambers into the upper and lower duodenum of the U.S. government, digesting all that is presented to them until all that is ultimately produced for all their grunts and moans is crap.

This is, in a way, the beauty part of the president’s action. Obama knows that with the Latino vote growing in America, the GOP can only hurt itself by trying to punish him on this. If they go too far in decrying his "illegal" action, they will appear to be attacking a group that is only going to become more important to their future. They painted themselves into this corner and there are Republican leaders who are actively behind the scenes cautioning party members to dial back their flaming critiques of the president. They have been outmaneuvered. A president who has moved too slowly on immigration has used the inertness of his opponents to appear decisive, turning a weak spot in his record into what will likely someday be seen as a signature victory.

To be fair, Barack Obama has not worked with the Congress on some issues as he should have. He has been aloof and apart even from congressional leaders of his own party. (Some of whom have undeniably played stooges’ roles in this farce.) And he is not above cynically using the Congress’s flaws to his advantage. He proclaims his rights as an executive right up until he’d rather blame the Congress for not getting certain things done — see last year’s "need" to seek Congress’s authorization for action in Syria or watch as he lets Congress kill real NSA reform, allowing him to blame them for not stopping programs he authorized and supported while not putting himself in the position of actually having to roll them back and opening himself up to criticism for being "soft on terror." He’ll probably use the new Congress in similarly calculated ways on the Keystone pipeline. He’ll let them pass a measure (like they almost did this week but will be able to do better in the new Senate) and he will veto it, inviting their override … which would have the perverse effect of letting the pipeline go forward, as his own State Department determined made sense to do, without having to inflame the green portions of his base. (Few recall that the White House came very close to approving the pipeline — because on the merits there was no real reason not to — and then it backed off because key environmentalists decided to make it, well, a line in the tar sands.)

But hey, in this environment when the Congress offers only dysfunction, then the only sane approach is to use the dysfunction to your advantage…. It’s not crazy to embrace dysfunction when that’s the only way to have something akin to functional government. (In the "Schoolhouse Rock" of today, the location of the U.S. Capitol will be found at Dysfunction Junction and there would be new poignancy to the immortal lyrics of "I’m Just a Bill" when the song gets to the part where it says, "Well, now I’m stuck in committee, And I’ll sit here and wait, While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate, Whether they should let me be a law, How I hope and pray that they will, But today I am still just a bill…")

The result of mastering the Catch-22 of contemporary Washington this week is an action on immigration that should be seen as a clear example of politically courageous leadership from the president — one that will rank near the top of his already formidable list of domestic policy accomplishments (that he could do a lot more to own and proclaim). In fact, given how twisted this city is, it seems vaguely fitting that the action will also contribute to this month’s success — despite the fact that it contained a massive Election Day drubbing for the president, it’s been the best one he has had since he received notification that he could transfer from Occidental College to Columbia. With a very productive trip to China, a significant climate agreement there, the immigration announcement, and the prospect of an announcement of some progress (at least) on the Iran nuclear talks, he has reversed a recent string of screw-ups and frustrations. Which just goes to show, in the upside-down, inside-out world of today’s Washington, nothing wins like losing.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf