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Why Obama Delayed His Go-It-Alone Immigration Plan

Why Obama Delayed His Go-It-Alone Immigration Plan

By Alexis Simendinger - September 8, 2014

President Obama has played the immigration reform card before, but with better results.

The sudden announcement over the weekend that he shuffled immigration to the bottom of his deck was not beyond imagining, at least not to some Democratic allies who thought they detected a gradual rethinking of the president’s vow, issued last June, to act alone this fall to change the immigration system because legislation is stuck.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who in late August worried aloud that Obama could get cold feet, thought the president’s attention might be pulled in other directions where competing demands for bold decision-making were beginning to pile up.

“I sometimes think of him like a fireman sitting in a room with bells going off, and he might respond to the bell that’s loudest,” Trumka told RCP. Other issues, such as Obama’s deliberations over how to crush Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria, plus political assaults from the GOP that the president is weak on foreign policy and  guilty of constitutional overreach at home, “could set things back” for immigration, he noted.

The labor leader, who was one of the first to get word from the White House that Obama would postpone executive actions that might have deferred deportations and expanded work opportunities for undocumented workers living in the United States, turned out to be right.

In a statement Saturday, the White House said Obama decided to wait until after the midterm elections, but would act before the end of the year. That was a day after the president, asked about his thinking during a press conference at the NATO summit in Wales, said he planned to study the options available to him on the plane ride home and would have an announcement “soon.”

During an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” taped on Saturday, Obama did not follow his staff’s lead and offered no specific timetable for executive action. He acknowledged that opposition from Republicans, coupled with public uncertainty about border security, rattled nervous Democratic candidates running in Republican-leaning states this year. Some have urged Obama in public and privately to hold off. Among their constituents, Obama is unpopular and the idea of bypassing Congress to curb deportations doesn’t sit well.

Polls suggest Republicans have a strong chance of taking control of the Senate next year. And in turn, Democratic pollsters and political analysts have told RCP they believe comprehensive immigration reform legislation will not have a serious chance until 2017, after the presidential election and a new Congress is in place.

Where party leaders and White House political advisers once thought the president’s go-it-alone actions could goose turnout among Democratic voters, they came to believe that Obama might offer conservative voters one more reason to turn out in droves in November. If Democrats lose the Senate, Obama will be blamed regardless, but Democratic candidates argued that the White House would erase progressive candidates’ attacks on House Republicans, forcing his party back on its heels over what the GOP would assail as unilateral “amnesty” orders. Immigration, they argued, would be the newest complaint on top of the unpopular Affordable Care Act, perceptions of a bleak economy, mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and angst about Iraq. 

Obama created a public spectacle this summer by pondering -- during dozens of meetings with administration experts and allies -- how he could unilaterally find a way for undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally. But his boasts ran aground with the administration’s much-publicized crisis of unaccompanied minors from Central America seeking asylum at the U.S. border.

“The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that [border] problem,” Obama said on NBC. “I want to spend some time, even as we're getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action … to make sure that the public understands why we're doing this, why it's the right thing for the American people, why it's the right thing for the American economy.”

It’s worth recalling how significantly the White House has altered its approach over the last six weeks, and how Obama lost his appetite for the immigration battle during a period in which he’s had to juggle serious decisions about U.S. airstrikes in Iraq to fight ISIL, along with diplomatic tools to rebuke Russia over its land grab in Ukraine. At home, the economy is mending, but not rapidly enough to cheer most middle-class and low-income voters, and the president is well aware of Americans’ discontent.

White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer boasted in late July that Obama’s bold actions, planned this fall on immigration, would demonstrate to voters, especially Latinos, which party had the better policies. The president’s actions might have the effect of inciting Republican leaders to agitate for impeachment, Pfeiffer said, sounding cheered at the prospect of the GOP using the “i” word.

Pfeiffer was so enthused about the political and policy merits of Obama’s immigration plan for the fall that he boasted the unilateral action would deliver big rewards. “I think that will be a very important step, substantively, and I think a pretty important step if you look at the arc of the presidency and the politics of immigration,” he said.

But over the weekend, Obama and his aides constructed an about-face, arguing the president was worried that acting on his own might poison chances for eventual congressional consideration of immigration legislation (legislation he’s been saying will remain hopelessly blocked this year and perhaps next).

“The reality the President has had to weigh is that we’re in the midst of the political season, and because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections,” the White House statement said.

Obama said nothing about whether he thought the options provided to him by his Cabinet experts were bold and impactful -- and for that reason potentially unpopular. But he said the ideas needed more consideration, and Americans, he added, still need a better understanding about why the immigration system needs to be overhauled and what’s actually happening at the border.

“I want to make sure we get it right. I want to make sure, number one, that all the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted,” the president told NBC. “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.”

Most recent polls about immigration and the border crisis disclose nuanced and even empathetic responses from Americans. But comparing polls over time indicates how the border crisis altered voters’ emphasis on providing legal residency, and made them more supportive of stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and deporting those already in the United States. The shift amounted to 10 points between the start of the year and results recorded in late July. That swing was 10 points among independent voters polled by CNN, and eight points among Democrats.

Republican pollster David Winston, who advises House Republicans, believes the lackluster jobs market, combined with international crises and the administration’s management stumbles have pushed people into thinking long and hard about whether the problems they continue to face in 2014 are the result of Obama’s policies, and whether the GOP has some alternative solutions. The president’s actions and the political climate “managed to get the electorate into a place where they want to hear what Republicans have to say,” Winston told RCP in an interview before the president’s latest announcement.

House Speaker John Boehner signaled in a recent statement that his colleagues hope to sharpen a persuasive economic message this fall.  

Clearly Latinos favor immigration reform, and advocacy groups continue to press Obama to halt deportations. Democrats running in the toughest Senate races this year voted for a comprehensive, bipartisan reform measure passed in the upper chamber in 2013. They have defended their votes on the campaign trail, even if their states have small Latino populations.

Any executive action taken by Obama in the absence of legislative reform would be temporary and vulnerable to an eraser wielded by Obama’s successor. The president’s spokesman has argued Obama would revoke any immigration order he issues as soon as Congress presents a measure he can sign.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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