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.

But there’s more to it than that. Obama will bring up immigration reform next year.

Bet on it. Not because he wants to get anything done, or because he suddenly feels the urge to keep the promise he made to Latino voters in the 2008 election. He’ll bring up immigration reform because he wants to see Republicans kill it -- and cook their goose, in doing so, with Latino voters in 2012. This is a set-up. Obama knows exactly how Republicans will likely react to his push for a comprehensive approach to this problem. In fact, he’s counting on it.

The trap is set. If all goes as planned, Obama will get credit from Latino voters for trying to do the right thing, and the GOP will be pummeled for not letting him. And since nothing will get done, Obama and congressional Democrats don’t have to worry about a backlash from organized labor.

Hats off. It’s an impressive maneuver that will probably wind up serving Obama’s reelection campaign with no downside. But it won’t serve the country well, or help fix an immigration system that is beyond broken. That would require something on which Obama seems to be running low: leadership.