Obama on Immigration: More Politics Than Policy

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama speaks about comprehensive immigration reform at American University in Washington on July 1, 2010

Faced with what he called "political posturing" by Republicans over immigration reform, President Obama fought back on Thursday with some grade-A political posturing of his own.

"The system is broken, and everybody knows it," Obama said in a speech at American University. "Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics."

In response, he loaded up his speech with just about every emotional trigger his speechwriters could fit into 4,000 words. In a matter of minutes, he evoked, among other things, the recent death of Ted Kennedy, the flight of European Jews from pogroms (and the "light from their villages burning to the ground"), the expulsion of turn-of-the-century Chinese immigrants from San Francisco, the construction of the Statue of Liberty, the scientific breakthroughs of Albert Einstein, the Latin motto on the national seal, Google, Thomas Jefferson, the drying ink on the U.S. Constitution, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a love for the stars and stripes as demonstrated by a Mexican immigrant now serving in the U.S. Navy.

It was, in the end, a political speech more than a policy speech, designed to deal with growing concern about Obama's performance among Hispanic voters. Obama was elected into office on the promise that he would tackle immigration in 2009. He decided, however, to give priority to health care reform, financial regulatory reform and energy legislation. As recently as two months ago, on Air Force One, just as Senate leaders were announcing a new push on immigration reform, the President was caught in a moment of candor. "We've gone through a very tough year and I've been working Congress very hard, so I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue," he said of immigration reform.

"That pretty much killed chances of reform [this year]," says Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America's Voice, a group that supports comprehensive reform. "Unless there is some miracle, we are talking about early next year."

Around the same time as Obama's Air Force One comment, the Gallup poll noted a significant drop in Hispanic support for the President, a major concern for White House political advisers who need Hispanic votes in 2010 and '12 in swing states like Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Gallup measured a 6-point drop in Hispanic job approval, from 63% to 57% between April and May. The drop was 11 points among Hispanics who were interviewed by Gallup in Spanish. During the same period, Gallup noted no change in the job approval for Obama among non-Hispanic black or white voters.

Since May, Obama has stepped up his personal involvement with the immigration issue, meeting with members of Congress on several occasions to discuss the issue. But in his speech on Thursday, Obama offered no timetable or road map to getting a comprehensive reform bill through Congress. Instead, he blamed Republicans for standing in the way of reform, pointing to the cooling of bipartisan support for reform in an election year. "Many of the 11 Republican Senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support," he said, before warning of "false debates that divide the country" and a potential for demagoguery.

Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who supports a border-enforcement bill before comprehensive reform, claimed to be confused by the mixed messages in Obama's speech. "On the one hand he says he needs bipartisanship, and on the other hand he slams Republicans," Kyl said in an interview on Fox News.

It is too soon to tell if the President will succeed in convincing Hispanic voters that the failure to pass reform that would give a path to citizenship to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants should be blamed on Republicans. But there is little doubt of the consequences if he fails to make headway in the coming years. As Sharry of America's Voice put it, "If his Spanish-language advertising in 2012 is, 'This time I mean it,' it's not going to go over well."