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Obama’s Phoenix Act

Just as Hispanics were giving up on him, Obama stood up for what he believes on Arizona and immigration—and passion is good politics.


Illustration by Tomasz Walenta  

The White House and Eric Holder haven’t marched in lockstep on every controversial issue, but regarding the wisdom of razing Arizona—or, to be precise, the state’s Draconian new immigration law—there’s no daylight between them. This we learned after Holder announced the Department of Justice’s lawsuit to challenge the law, when Robert Gibbs affirmed at his daily briefing that his boss stood foursquare behind the suit. “The president believes that we filed a strong case based on the fact that you can’t have … 50 states making a patchwork of immigration decisions,” Gibbs said before noting the political perils of that position. “If you look at the polling … it’s pretty safe to see that the president did this because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the popular thing to do.”

Gibbs’s gift for understatement sometimes eludes him, but in the final clause of this statement, at least, it was vividly on display. According to virtually every poll conducted on the Arizona law, which would give police the power to demand that people they’ve stopped verify their residency status, roughly 60 percent of Americans say they’re in favor of it; and a Gallup survey taken late last week found that voters oppose the lawsuit by a 50-33 margin. Moreover, in a recent NBC-MSNBC-Telemundo poll, fully 40 percent of registered voters said they would back a Republican congressional candidate who supported the law, compared with just 26 percent who would side with a Democrat who was against it.

With numbers like that floating around, the reaction of the political class to the suit was entirely predictable. Conservatives howled that the DOJ was trampling on states’ rights. Republican strategists rubbed their paws with glee, predicting that the administration had just bequeathed them a gnarly whupping stick. Many Democratic operatives—and some of Barack Obama’s people, including one who occupies a very high slot on the White House org chart—glumly agreed with that assessment, cradling their heads in their hands.

In an era of bitter polarization, such bi-partisan near unanimity of opinion is a rare thing indeed. What’s even rarer, however, is a circumstance in which so many smart people of all ideological stripes strike me as so wildly and woefully off base. With the lawsuit and the sharper focus on immigration signaled by Obama’s speech plumping for comprehensive reform, POTUS has gotten both the policy and politics right, in the short term and the long run. And he’s done it in a way that may signal a return—and just in time!—to his best fighting form.

To understand Obama’s journey to this place, it helps to go back to his campaign for the presidency, when his position on immigration was arguably the most liberal among the serious candidates. (Please recall Hillary Clinton’s equivocation over the issue of driver’s licenses for illegals, along with Obama’s savvy and ruthless exploitation of it.) On arriving in the White House, Obama and his team proclaimed that immigration reform was at the top of their domestic agenda, along with health-care and financial reform. Hispanics and progressive immigration reformers smiled happily, fingers crossed, and waited patiently.

And then nothing happened. Actually, worse than nothing. The health-care battle dragged on for months. Financial reform ate up more weeks. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up. And suddenly the sound of dragging feet began emanating from the White House. In April, Harry Reid, who desperately needs big-time Hispanic support to save his Nevada seat, declared that immigration would be next on the upper chamber’s docket. But almost immediately, Obama undercut Reid, telling reporters aboard Air Force One, “We’ve gone through a very tough year and I’ve been working Congress pretty hard, so I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue.”

Among Hispanic politicians and left-leaning reformers, there was little doubt about whom to blame for the backsliding at La Casa Blanca: Rahm Emanuel, whose deep wariness about the politics of immigration has been a constant in his colorful Washington career. As an aide to Bill Clinton, Emanuel saw the issue almost exclusively as a means of demonstrating his boss’s law-and-order bona fides, making sure that his boss was, and was perceived as, a tough cop when it came to illegals. Later, as the architect of his party’s takeover of the House in 2006, he publicly referred to immigration as the “third rail of American politics” and relentlessly advised Democrats to take a tough line on it, including voting for hard-right measures that were anathema to liberals. Now, inside the White House, Emanuel was making similar arguments against pushing hard for comprehensive reform, which would create a path to legal status for 11 million undocumented workers, on the theory that it would be a killer for countless vulnerable congresspeople in this year’s midterm elections.


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