Sidelined Obama Faces Impossible Task on Immigration

With a radioactive image among House Republicans and few tools to tame congressional gridlock, the President is preparing to take a more vocal role

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Scott Olson / Getty Images

Vishaun Lawrence of Jamaica takes an oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.

Here’s a simple litmus test to gauge the odds of passing immigration reform: the more President Obama is talking about the issue, the better the chance the bill dies.

As the Senate haggled over a sweeping bill to rewrite U.S. immigration policy, Obama lurked in the shadows, eschewing public negotiations and leaving his aides to work Capitol back channels. But now, with a radioactive image among House Republicans, and few tools to tame congressional gridlock, the President is preparing to take a more vocal role.

It is, allies concede, a telling sign that the bill’s fortunes are foundering in the fractious Republican-controlled House — and a symbol of Obama’s vanishing clout just six months into his second term. Democratic officials expect that over the coming weeks Obama will travel across the U.S., likely to strategically important states like Nevada, North Carolina and Texas, to highlight the economic benefits of the law. Obama summoned Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator John McCain to the White House on Thursday to discuss ways to advance the bill in the House. The West Wing is waiting on House Republicans to choose a path on immigration reform before finalizing its strategy, but aides plan a markedly different role for the President over the coming months.

(MORE: No Easy Path Forward as House Republicans Meet on Immigration)

From the beginning of the Senate’s negotiations, Obama slipped into the background at the behest of Democratic leaders. On a Sunday night in January, days before the President was scheduled to deliver a speech on immigration at an event in Las Vegas, members of the Gang of Eight urged him to withhold specifics. Any principles the President set forth, they feared, would force Republicans to drag the bill to the right to avoid aligning with Obama.

“I basically said to the President, give us some space,” Schumer, the lead Democratic negotiator, told TIME last month. “You can give us deadlines, but don’t get involved in the details here, because to get a bipartisan bill, you can’t be all that helpful. And he agreed. He has been perfect on this issue. If it passes, he’ll deserve a lot of credit, because he’s handled it exactly right.”

But the challenge in the House is different. The mere mention of Obama’s name makes the “hell no” caucus shudder. His toxicity with House Republicans makes his presence in legislative negotiations a liability. One reason the GOP is pushing for border security before legalization is they suspect that once the bill is passed, Obama will enforce only the parts that he likes. “Enforcement can’t be conditioned on the President’s goodwill and honesty,” says Republican activist Grover Norquist, “because there isn’t a belief that it exists.”

For his part, Obama is looking for cues from House Democrats on how to proceed. During a summit at the White House on Wednesday, Obama asked members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus how he could be helpful, according to a Democratic aide briefed on the meeting. For now, the plan is to highlight the economic benefits of comprehensive immigration reform without assigning blame to House Republicans, who aren’t in the mood to be lectured. “If he thinks barnstorming the country, or attacking Republicans or saying what he thinks is in the Republicans’ best interest, he’s wrong,” says a House GOP leadership aide. “You don’t need to raise the temperature here any higher than it is.”

The White House is planning to step up its efforts with business leaders and stakeholders, and will deploy members of the Cabinet to hold events in support of immigration reform. Meanwhile senior staff will be spending more time on the phones with CEOs, faith leaders and community groups that can help the cause. The push is expected to gear up once the direction of the House Republican conference becomes clear. The GOP emerged from a two-hour closed meeting in the basement of the Capitol with no consensus — except perhaps that “this Administration cannot be trusted,” as House Republicans leaders declared in a joint statement.

(MORE: Explainer: Why It Costs Immigrants $680 to Apply for Naturalization)

If reform fails, Administration officials are plotting how to keep Obama on the right side of public opinion. They won’t rule out the possibility of further executive actions to circumvent Congress in the event the House fails to act. Congressional gridlock has driven Obama down this path before. He issued a series of executive orders on gun control, and toughened emissions standards on vehicles and power plants when climate legislation faltered. He also used executive authority to halt deportations of so-called DREAMers at the height of last year’s presidential campaign.

But Representative Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, told reporters after a meeting with Obama that the President was wary of taking executive action to further curb deportations now. “He’s afraid that it’s going to harm the overall process of trying to get immigration done,” Sires said, according to Politico.

A key difficulty for the Administration is the lack of leverage over House Republicans, who after redistricting have a wealth of safe seats. In a tacit admission that retaking the House anytime soon is a long shot, Administration officials say their chances of accomplishing immigration reform in two years would be lower than they are now, with the momentum of the Senate bill and the 2012 elections. But the politics would be in their favor, with Republicans bearing the brunt of the blame for sinking the bill. As Obama aides know, immigration will be a potent issue in the 2016 presidential race, even if it can’t help them reclaim the House next year.

Obama isn’t the only President to find himself beguiled by immigration reform. George W. Bush’s push to overhaul immigration policy was stymied by his own party during his second term as well. But Obama’s vanishing swat on Capitol Hill is a sign that he began losing traction in his second term from the start. “It’s a sad indictment of the way politics operates these days, but House and Senate Republicans have made it very clear they don’t want anything to do with President Obama,” says Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist and longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, like many Capitol Hill observers, thinks Obama has taken a shrewd approach to immigration.

And yet, Obama’s relegation to a supporting role on one of the signature legislative fights of his second term marks the limits of his powers. “He’s a lightning rod — unfairly so,” Manley says. “If he starts trying to get involved legislatively, that’s a Drudge warning siren that the bill’s dying a slow, painful death.”

PHOTOS: The Ground Zero of Immigration: El Paso by Reed Young

21 comments
BrianHollander
BrianHollander

The reason the Republicans do not wish to work with the President on this issue is so that in 2016 they can claim the Democratic Presidential Administration got nothing done.  They are playing politics with people's lives.

wgberger
wgberger

Remember the Hippocratic Oath:" First, do no harm." It would be good if the legislation dies. as ...

It is far worse than just ushering in another round of illegal immigration since the enforcement provisions are a fig leaf and thus guarantee future illegal immigration.

It also invites massive increases of 'legal' immigration - into a country that has millions unemployed.

It raise the number of tech workers thus killing the employment opportunities of American tech workers and kids studying these fields.

In short, Congress is killing the Middle Class of this country to benefit foreigners and the filthy rich.


besteda
besteda

Amnesty will devastate the black community once employers realize that newly legalized immigrants will work for less in low wage job areas. They have already done so with the construction industry in many places, driving wages to unlivable levels.

The under- and unemployment rate in the Black community is already 30%. After immigration reform we can prepare for levels in the 50% range I believe.

Obama has once again sold us out to secure new democrat voters!

thesafesurfer
thesafesurfer

 It's too bad the President doesn't take a more vocal role promoting economic growth and job creation. These are the crucial issues threatening our country, anemic economic growth, chronic unemployment, and disastrous underemployment. 

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

Why the big rush to pass amnesty for illegals? Who will be harmed if we wait on this? Who will be harmed if we don't wait on this? In case you haven't noticed Americans are not doing very well
101 million Americans can’t feed their families without government assistance
90 million Americans have exhausted their unemployment benefits and still can't find work.
75 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Only 47 percent of Americans are working full time.
Then there is the concern, at least by some of us, what this amnesty will do to the minority community.
Americans are barely able to scrape by right now. They don't need the job competition.
Let's get Americans back on their feet and then discuss allowing millions more people in to this country.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

"It’s a sad indictment of the way politics operates these days, but House and Senate Republicans have made it very clear they don’t want anything to do with President Obama,” says Jim Manley..."

yeah, and democrats wanted oh so much to do with bush. thank you captain obvious

Sherm
Sherm

The president is great at getting elected, but other than that seems unable to convince anyone of anything.  I'll always remember him flying to Europe when Chicago was to leading contender for the Olympics and making a big speech.  Chicago was thrown out on the next ballot.  Worst salesman ever.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

Obama should NOT speak out about immigration reform.  He should have his surrogates do it.

Hermione
Hermione

This gridlock is costing the American people a lot of money.

Personally, I think we should expect our government officials to start accepting pay cuts, for jobs NOT well done.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Well that makes sense; Obama is making GOP obstruct his agenda. It's not like that's being going on since he first took office and more importantly the policy of the land since Reagan.

Lets not point at the crazy, let's point out that Obama has no magic ability to persuade the crazy to stop being crazy - and that drives them crazy(ier).

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

In order to identify a task as impossible you first have to define what that task is. Obama's "task" in this instance is to make sure that the world knows that Republicans #1 duty is to stick it to Hispanics. Far from being impossible, that task is distressingly easy.


deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Here we go again. Let's not play a new round of the "Obama is to blame for GOP obstruction" game here. If it weren't for the teavangelicals in Congress afraid of the scary brown people, there would've been reform passed long ago. That's the focus of the blame, enough said. However, I'll bet Alex wrote the last paragraph pointing out Obama's limits and the “He’s a lightning rod — unfairly so" quote. But again, the R's are blame for any failure here, no one else.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

Drop the path to citizenship for now.  If these folks came here for work, then most of them will be satisfied with a legal work permit .  Tighten up on those visa requirements and make them check in regularly, so we know where they are.  Employers could play a part in that.  I'm an independent who supports Pres. Obama, but that path to citizenship is nothing more than a way to lock in those hispanic votes.  Right now, that's asking for too much. 

lreed580
lreed580

According to Rep. Kevin Brady, Republican from Texas, the House will  support legal status only. He said that if they came here illegally, then they can not expect a pathway to citizenship. 'That will certainly have Hispanics flocking to the Republican party.

The author fails to acknowledge the radioactive image House 'R's have among many. There's no doubt where the blame will fall......and it's not on this president.

fitty_three
fitty_three

GOP obstructionism becomes "Obama's radioactive image among House Republicans".

What spin.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

They really are children. Personal feelings trump policy. And it is treated as "well what're you gonna do?"

eagle11772
eagle11772

@deconstructiva You appear to believe that the MAJORITY Republicans in the House simply appeared out of thin air and that the American voting public had NO SAY AT ALL in them being the MAJORITY.  The American people VOTED these REPRESENTATIVES into office to put a brake on The Obamaniac's wild and Stalinist policies.

Hermione
Hermione

@Onepatriot 

I would be perfectly happy with illegal immigrants paying for work visas, as well as paying taxes and or fees as well.

Whether these people choose to apply for full citizenship, I think that should be a separate matter.  Just one step at a time.