Obama’s Phoenix Act

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.

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.

Obama’s Phoenix Act