Obama’s immigration punt: Wisdom or weakness?

     Demonstrators are arrested outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, during a protest for immigration reform. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

    Demonstrators are arrested outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, during a protest for immigration reform. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

    President Obama’s decision to delay executive-action immigration reform until after the ’14 election is a sign of wisdom, or a sign of weakness, or maybe a bit of both.

    Whatever it is, it doesn’t look good.

    Because a decision to do nothing is really a non-decision, and we like our presidents to act decisively – especially after they’ve promised decisiveness. Which is what Obama did on June 30, when he vowed to act unilaterally on immigration reform “without further delay.”

    It’s arguably a sign of wisdom that Obama has bowed to reality. It’s a tough political climate at the moment – a lot of Americans were unnerved this summer by the increased flow of unaccompanied Central American minors across the border; a lot of vulnerable red-state Democratic Senate incumbents have been begging Obama to hold off on executive-action reform, lest they be forced on the campaign trail to defend or renounce the policy –  and so, on Friday, the president announced his punt. No point in risking the loss of the Senate, which would surely doom legislative reform for at least two more years.

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    But his punt can also be read as a sign of weakness, a virtual confession that he’s a helpless hostage to the politics of the moment. Proactive presidents are adept at reframing the politics to their advantage, but Obama’s non-decision is nakedly reactive. It’s a frank acknowledgment (to borrow a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson) that events are in the saddle, riding him.

    Obama basically said yesterday, on Meet The Press, that he needs to get back into the saddle on this issue, to explain why executive action is necessary – “I’m going to act because it’s the right thing for the country. But it’s going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration” – all of which prompts the question: Hasn’t he had five and a half years to educate the public on immigration reform? Has he not built a sufficient head of steam to trump the public’s qualms about the summer border crisis, and red-state Democrats’ qualms about defending reform? Apparently not.

    The bottom line: He looks irresolute. And there are human costs.

    Certainly his longtime allies in the Hispanic electorate and the immigration reform movement feel that way. The remarks this weekend were savage, starting with Frank Sharry of the pro-reform group America’s Voice (“Jerking around the Latino community on a defining issue amounts to political malpractice”) and the coalition of groups that lectured Obama in an open letter (“Being a leader requires making difficult and courageous decisions”). They say that Obama has betrayed them – raised their expectations in June, only to dash them – for political purposes. As Arturo Carmona, director of an Hispanic advocacy group, complained this weekend, “for Obama, politics comes before Latino lives.”

    And yet, Obama may have made matters worse yesterday by insulting the reformers’ intelligence.

    On Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked him: “You made a decision to delay any executive action until after the election. What do you tell the person that’s going to get deported before the election that this decision was essentially made in your hopes of saving a Democratic Senate?” And, amazingly, Obama replied: “Well, that’s not the reason.”

    Of course it was the reason. Everybody knows this was the reason. It’s been in the press for months. It was in the press again this morning:

    By early August, the start of Congress’ summer break, Representative Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, had released an attack ad charging that Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas – one of his party’s most at-risk candidates in November’s midterm congressional elections – was ignoring an immigration crisis on the United States-Mexico border, where thousands of Central American migrants were streaming into the United States.

     Other vulnerable Democrats were facing similar ads, and one by one, they began calling top White House officials…to vent their concerns that if Mr. Obama took executive action, it could cost them their seats – and their party control of the Senate. The White House requested polling data in key Senate races and received numbers from Arkansas and Iowa, where voters overwhelmingly sided with those opposed to the possibility of Mr. Obama taking executive action on immigration.

    So the White House “requested polling data in key Senate races” – yet Obama insisted yesterday that his punt had nothing to do with the Senate races. How does he expect reformers and Hispanic activists to believe him down the road, if he won’t level with them today?

    One other thing. Obama has drawn a new red line on immigration reform, vowing to put pen to paper shortly after the midterms; as he declared Friday, “I want to be very clear…I’m going to do what I can…because it’s the right thing to do for the country.” But given his track record (he originally vowed to prioritize immigration reform during his first year in office), it’s debatable whether anyone will put stock in his newest promise. What if Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) tell him after the midterms, “Don’t sign any executive actions, because it could foul things up for us in ’15 and ’16”?

    As the director of the Dream Action Coalition told a reporter the other day, “I don’t even know if we should trust what he’s saying.”And if a president’s own allies feel they can’t trust him, how can he govern effectively?



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