Obama, Not That into It

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 14, 2013


As he negotiates with Republicans and Democrats an immigration reform, President Obama appears insufficiently interested in making a major overhaul of the immigration system one of his presidential legacies.


A reform that establishes a pathway to citizenship would give millions of undocumented workers a shot at the American Dream and offers a rare opportunity to show bipartisanship on an issue that interests employers and the business sector. However, Obama has shown the same lack of enthusiasm on the reform negotiations as he did in the first presidential debate in 2012. The night of October 3rd, 2012, while the Republican candidate Mitt Romney appeared well-prepared and enthusiastic about his ideas and policy proposals, Obama looked detached and uninterested. The President made little efforts to convince viewers that he was better prepared and more qualified than Romney. After the debate, Romney came out energized. Obama spent several days explaining his dismal performance.  Though Obama never lost the lead in polls, the dynamics of the race changed. Obama was put on the defensive. Republicans were able to raise concerns about Obama’s qualifications to win a second term.


In recent days, President Obama has also shown signs of detachment on immigration reform. The complicated negotiations involve many issues that can discourage anyone.  Immigrant groups demand a reform that will offer a way to citizenship to more than 10 million undocumented workers who have lived in the United States for as many as twenty years. Conservative Republicans are willing to accept a pathway to legalization—not citizenship—in exchange for much tougher border control policies and a speedier deportation process against immigrants who break laws. The discrepancies between “pathway to citizenship” and “pathway to legalization” are not trivial.  Since most of the undocumented workers are of Latino origin, Democrats hope that those immigrants will further strengthen the Democratic Party’s strong support among Latinos. Many Republican leaders reasonably believe that no matter how many concessions they make on immigration reforms, Latinos will not support Republican candidates.  Moderate Republicans admit that attracting Latino votes will be difficult, but they warn that it is unviable to aspire to be a majority party without targeting Latino voters.


In addition, immigration reform has become a battlefield for supporters and opponents of gay marriage. Same-sex marriage activists have successfully lobbied several senators in support of provisions that would allow gay Americans to apply for family reunification visas for their domestic partners. As anti-same-sex marriage Congresspersons staunchly oppose that provision, the fight over the movement to legalize same-sex marriage might delay, and even derail, immigration reform.


Other issues addressed in the proposal now being discussed in the Senate also have polarizing implications. The decision over whether the U.S. should prioritize attracting highly skilled labor over family reunification also divides Republicans and Democrats. Congresspersons who represent districts with a high immigrant population favor family reunification priorities where those from areas with strong science and high-tech sectors push for a need-based immigration policy.  Discussions on how to better secure the border hinge upon the larger and much more divisive budget and sequestration battles. Republicans want to increase funding for border security—with more patrol agents and a larger role for local and state authorities in helping enforce immigration laws. Liberal democrats are adamantly opposed to increasing funding for border patrols without first restoring funding to social programs dear to their constituencies.


As it always happens with major reforms, particular interest groups lobby hard to get their priorities included in the new bills. Presidents must respond with equal strength by doing tough bargaining with the opposition and lining up representatives and senators from their party behind the compromised bill. Unless a president is fully committed to the reform, the chances of it passing are not high.


President Obama finds himself in a difficult position. He knows that there is nothing he can do to top what will be his greatest legacy, being the first African American president in the nation’s history.  In his first term, Obama worked hard minimize the negative effects of the economic crisis that first hit in 2008.  He also struggled to pass a comprehensive health reform. Dubbed Obamacare by his opponents, the health reform will surely be the second most important accomplishment of his presidency. Even if it passes, an immigration reform will at most place third among Obama’s legacies.  Because Latinos will continue voting democratic and because it is not easy sorting through the intricacies that such a bargaining requires, unless President Obama shows more enthusiasm in pushing for it, immigration reform might end being derailed just like under President George W. Bush.


When visiting New York on Monday evening for three Democratic fundraisers, President Obama’s motorcade was expected to cause huge traffic delays. As usual, the White House press office apologized to New Yorkers for the inconvenience, but the President still travelled. Unless President Obama is willing to inconvenience some supporters and interest groups, his immigration reform will end up the same way as many New Yorkers last night, going nowhere.