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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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.”

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