The reaction to President Obama’s announcement that he will use his power as president to change the way American immigration law is administered illustrates two of the worst tendencies in American politics.

The first is the current posture of the Republican Party in which the president can do no right, where concerns for consistency with past practices or principles are regularly subordinated to the impulse to demonize the president.

The second is the tendency by people on the left to denounce policies that are good but, from their perspective, not good enough. They condemn positive action toward desired goals as being insufficient, even when these policies represent major steps in the right direction.

During the Reagan and Bush years, when Republican presidents dealt with Congresses that were either divided or controlled by Democrats, the Republicans elaborated on the theory of the “unified executive,” which stressed the legitimacy of strong presidential initiatives.

But it turns out that the Republican insistence that presidents may take actions that are within their constitutional powers but lack explicit congressional endorsement does not apply to Democratic chief executives.

Even in this situation, congressional Republicans object to unilateral presidential activity only when they disagree with it in substance. When a president is doing things without congressional approval that congressional Republicans want him to do – even though there has been no legislative support for it – they applaud him.

As I’ve noted in the case of the bombing of Syria or military action to deal with the current turmoil in the Middle East, many congressional Republicans actually have attacked the president for not ignoring Congress. The notion that it is a greater constitutional reach for the president to decide not to deport people than to send American troops into battle is a prime example of right-wing hyperpartisans.

The ferocity of Republican criticism of the president on this issue also undercuts one argument that has been made by some on the Republican side, who say they favor a more inclusive immigration policy and understand the impossibility of mass deportation but claim that what congressional Republicans object to is the prospect of allowing all of these people to vote, since they will almost certainly vote heavily Democratic.

The president’s order does not confer the right to vote on anyone because that would clearly be beyond his powers, and he has restricted his order to those things he has constitutionally the right to do.

This very acceptance by the president of the limitation on what he can do by executive order leads me to the second example of how he has been the victim of unfair criticism based on an unfortunate tendency that has grown in American politics.

Here I am talking about the approach of many of my allies on the left, who have fallen into a pattern of denouncing public policies that are less than perfect from their standpoint, even if they represent a considerable advance over the status quo, and represent the most that their allies are able to deliver for them in the existing legal and political contexts.

Attacks on President Obama from immigrants and their supporters because he has provided legal status to some individuals but has not been able to do this for everyone in that category are unfair, ill-informed and damaging to their cause.

I very much resented the attacks on the president during the recent midterm election campaigns from those seeking to provide legal status for people who came here illegally, solely on the basis the president was not doing that before the election. This contributed to Republican gains in two ways.

First, many of these people outrageously argued that advocates of immediate and sweeping action – especially Latinos – should sit out the election to punish the president and the Democrats for the fact that the Republican House of Representatives refused to act on legislation that he supported.

We suffer from legal voter suppression by conservatives, and moral voter suppression from those on the left who demonize government even when it is moving in the right direction and tell people voting is futile.

These attacks on the president for not bringing more people across the border contrary to the law also contributed to negative public opinion in general.

This was good news for people who dislike health care, would like to see a rollback of financial reform and want to restrain domestic spending to improve the quality of life. But it is frustrating when the arguments that help conservatives electorally come from people who purport to believe the opposite, but in their frustration strike out regardless of the political impact.

I have long been a supporter of immigration reform. There was a recent picture in The New York Times of President Reagan in 1986 signing the first bill to give legal status to people who had come here illegally.

Arrayed behind him were Vice President George H.W. Bush, Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Rodino. Had the photograph included four more people, I would have been one of them.

But as much as I support what the president is doing and wish that Congress were adopting the broad immigration bill he supports, I very much disagree with those – including a number of people who did come here in violation of the law – who insist that a complete satisfaction of their demands be put at the top of the progressive agenda, even when it causes damage to other important public policy goals.

The reaction after the election is just as mistaken.

Obama is currently pledged to take an action that will benefit millions of people who came to the United States illegally, based on an expansive but not fanciful reading of his powers under the law. But there are limits to these powers in the absence of congressional action, and for the president to be attacked by those who will benefit from what he is doing because he is not ignoring those limitations is wholly irresponsible.

Public opinion polls already show that the president’s action is more unpopular than not. When the beneficiaries of what he is proposing denounce him for not completely ignoring the Constitution and public opinion, it is one more discouraging example of undisciplined emotion – on the left as well as the right.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

— Special to the Telegram