Was Obama immigration delay 'raw politics' or principle? Both, maybe

For a beleaguered Obama administration, new accusations that the president is “playing politics” with immigration might not hurt nearly as much as the regret that he did not play politics better.

On Saturday, an administration official announced that the president will not, as promised, take executive action on immigration before the end of the summer. Immigration groups are heartbroken. With immigration reform legislation roadblocked by the Republican-run House of Representatives, unilateral action by President Obama was the only realistic chance of movement on the issue.

“The president’s latest broken promise is another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director for immigration advocacy group United We Dream, in a statement.

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Meanwhile, Republicans are, for the moment, gleeful at the fact that Mr. Obama has bowed to the will of vulnerable Senate Democrats and delayed his action until after the November midterms. The mounting fear among Democrats was that the executive action might drive angry conservatives to the polls, virtually assuring that the Senate would fall into Republican hands.

“The decision to simply delay this deeply-controversial and possibly unconstitutional unilateral action until after the election – instead of abandoning the idea altogether – smacks of raw politics,” added House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio in a statement.

Mr. Boehner’s statement is both absolutely correct and completely absurd, of course. When it comes to throwing around accusations of “raw politics,” Congress is the ultimate glass house. Very little of what goes on in Congress – at least on the surface – is anything other than “raw politics,” so to accuse Obama of playing politics (as though that is unusual) smacks of hypocrisy merely meant to inflame, not enlighten.

But, in this case, is the accusation of “raw politics” even as bad as it sounds?

On one hand, all signs suggest that this is a matter of principle for Obama. Sure, he would reap a political benefit. Latinos are a growing political bloc, and such a move might have moved them even more squarely into the Democratic fold.

But most analysts felt Obama’s political timing was dead wrong.

First, non-presidential-year elections tend to have low Latino turnout compared with presidential election years. The voters who drive midterm elections are older and whiter, and these are precisely the sort of voters most likely to be outraged by an executive action easing immigration rules.

Second, even if an executive action did motivate Latino voters this fall, the 2014 election map would give Democrats few benefits. The key Senate seats up for grabs are in states with comparatively small Latino populations. So, of the 10 or so seats that could still go either way, the only Democrat who might clearly benefit from administrative action on immigration is Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado. The rest would likely suffer. Indeed, New Hampshire Republican Scott Brown has been hitting Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) hard on immigration, and a recent poll suggests he might be making up ground.

Last, this summer’s border crisis has changed the optics on the issue, with polls suggesting surging public angst. In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Obama acknowledged: “The truth of the matter is – is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem.”

The question, then, is why – until Saturday – Obama was still determined to jam what could have been a politically suicidal executive action down Senate Democrats’ throats. One man’s “raw politics” is another’s sound political strategy. If you’re going to take action, why not do it when it might be a benefit to your party and not an encumbrance?

The answer, it seems, is an insight into the president himself.

Perhaps, in typical Obama fashion, the president was insistent upon the longer-term view – myopic 2014 thinking be damned. Last week, before the change in plans was announced, the National Journal’s James Oliphant wrote:

The long-term political view is that granting widespread deportation relief will accrue to the Democrats’ advantage in 2016, helping to ensure that the Obama Coalition doesn’t fray, the president is succeeded by a Democrat who will safeguard his signature accomplishments, and the Senate, if lost, is regained.

Or, perhaps, the president once again couldn’t contain his earnestness.

In recent weeks, he has come under severe criticism for saying that the US did not yet have a strategy on how to contain the Islamic State, and throughout the summer, he has been pilloried for being “disengaged” and not “leading.” For a man who sees foreign policy in endless shades of gray, that likely amounts to a form of honesty – not promising Americans something he knows he can’t deliver simply to win points with a rhetorical flourish.

The irony is that, in June, Obama spoke categorically about exactly what he would deliver. In the White House Rose Garden, he announced he had directed key administration officials to give him recommendations for executive action on immigration by the end of summer. He would, he vowed, “adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

Now, “raw politics” has forced him to adopt them – if at all – with a very notable delay.

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Was Obama immigration delay 'raw politics' or principle? Both, maybe
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