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Obama’s Phoenix Act

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But according to Democrats within and outside the administration, Obama overruled his chief of staff. “Rahm didn’t want the lawsuit, he didn’t want the speech, he didn’t want anything,” says a well-wired insider. “But this is a moral issue for Barack, as it is for many people. It is one he has deeply held views about. He genuinely believes reform has to be bi-partisan or it’s not gonna work, and that it’s better for the country that way. But he also thinks this is the kind of issue where the president of the country can exercise his moral leadership.”

There was at least one other factor that moved Obama to embrace the lawsuit: that on legal and policy grounds, he had no other choice. “The Arizona law made it impossible to duck,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN and an expert on immigration. “The law puts the federal immigration system under threat, so the federal government had to reassert its authority. I mean, this was not a close call. This is about who is and isn’t a citizen. Our immigration laws, like foreign policy, are clearly a federal responsibility.”

The politics of the lawsuit, and of Obama’s turning up the heat on immigration more generally, are more complicated, to be sure. No doubt Republicans will hammer Democrats with immigration in swing districts and swing states across the country. No doubt it will be a problem for some in the West—and in particular a handful of congresspeople in Arizona, three of whom begged the administration not to file the suit—where the issue is hottest.

Yet the history of immigration politics suggests that Republicans who see Obama’s move as a boon and Democrats who see it as a disaster need to take a pill. “In the past three elections, Republicans have predicted that immigration would be the silver bullet that would kill the Democratic werewolf, but it never works,” says Rosenberg. “Republicans can’t point to a single race where immigration was the issue that allowed one of their candidates to beat a Democrat. In fact, there is much more evidence of moderate Democrats taking out anti-immigrant Republicans in swing districts than there is of the inverse.”

Maybe this year will be different—but I doubt it. With the midterms less than four months away, the Republicans’ strategy is already clear: to turn the election into a national referendum on Obama. Among the (mainly white) voters for whom immigration would be a reason to vote against the president by proxy, there are already a multitude of greater sins for which he and his party deserve the boot: health care, bailouts, socialism, yadda yadda yadda.

The more salient danger, however, lurks on the other side of the coin: in the possibility that those naturally inclined to vote Democratic will stay home this fall out of frustration with Obama. To wit: Hispanics. According to Gallup, though the president’s job-approval ratings have held steady with white voters, among Latinos they have plummeted—falling from 69 to 57 percent overall since January, and from 73 to 52 percent among those interviewed in Spanish.

When those Gallup figures were published in June, they were a smack upside the head to the White House, and were part of the reason why some Obama advisers, including David Axelrod, began to see the logic in making a vocal case for comprehensive reform. Given the legislative calendar, the likelihood of any action on reform this year is next to nil. It’s an open question as to whether the combo of Obama’s rhetoric and the DOJ lawsuit, together with whatever wanton immigrant bashing the Republicans indulge in, will be enough to inspire a surge in Hispanic turnout in November. And there’s little doubt that if Obama is to repeat his performance with Latinos in 2012—which he will have to do to win—it will require a sustained and substantive push for reform in 2011. But the fact that the White House has woken up to its growing trouble with arguably the key demographic group in the new American electorate is a decidedly welcome sign.

And so is what we’ve seen from Obama on immigration these past weeks. “The president is always best served when he goes with his gut,” says someone close to him. “When he’s fighting for something he believes in, that’s something people respond to in him, even when they don’t necessarily agree with his position.” This kind of fighting is something we’ve seen too seldom from Obama in the White House. It’s when he’s at his best. And his best is what he’ll need to be if he and his party are going to survive the wave that threatens to engulf them.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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