Obama's Latest Play for Latinos Lacks True Leadership

There is no Spanish translation for “chutzpah.” But if President Obama is going to continue talking about immigration reform, Latinos might have to come up with one.

Last month, before the midterm elections, I wrote for PJM that President Obama was playing Latinos for fools. His game? Trying to convince them to vote for Democratic candidates on the assumption that Republicans were to blame for the foot-dragging on immigration reform. It was an especially shameless move. As a review of the facts shows, much of the stalling is coming from the White House itself. Like Democrats in Congress, the Obama administration has little interest in engaging a debate in which they’ll be cast as weak on border security and which divides organized labor and Latinos, two loyal Democratic constituencies.

Now, Obama is at again. This time, he’s not looking backward but forward. The president promised members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he would push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2011. According to some of those at the meeting, Obama also suggested that he would mention the issue in his State of the Union address.

The timing for these assurances is odd because political observers agree that the odds for achieving such reform -- including a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants in the United States -- are about to get much longer when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. Key Republicans have signaled that they’ll be more focused on border control measures and stronger enforcement, and less amenable toward any discussion of legalizing the undocumented. If reform advocates couldn’t get what they wanted when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s hard to see how they’ll do any better under divided government.

It’s also curious that Obama made the promise to pursue comprehensive immigration reform just days after a handful of Democrats in the Senate defeated the DREAM Act, which would have granted residency to young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents provided they attend college or join the military. Liberals are feverishly spinning the tale that it was Republicans who killed the bill. It’s a believable narrative, given how badly the GOP tends to handle the immigration issue, but it’s also an inaccurate one. The fact is that the DREAM Act died for one reason and one reason only -- because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid couldn’t rein in five stray Democrats who voted against cloture and denied the bill a formal vote by the full Senate.

Even so, it’s not hard to see what Obama is up to, and it’s a more cynical ploy than his pre-election strategy. There, the idea was to convince Latinos to support Democrats to punish Republicans for what they hadn’t done. This time around, it’s becoming apparent that Obama doesn’t care what Republicans do, and that he just enjoys using them as a convenient foil. It’s obvious that Obama -- along with Democrats in Congress -- think they gain more from keeping immigration reform alive as an issue than they would from finding an actual solution that would alienate various factions of the Democratic coalition.