Until this week, President Obama had largely stayed out of the immigration debate. While the White House was active behind the scenes, Obama himself largely avoided address the issue in public. On Saturday, however, Obama devoted his weekly radio address to the issue. On Thursday, the White House release a report touting the economic impact of the Senate-passed bill and announced at the state of the week he would conduct a campaign-style tour in support of the issue. His renewed involvement could be a bad sign for supporters of the Senate bill.
Earlier this year, the White House had drafted its own legislation to reform immigration and create a pathway to citizenship. Democrats in the Senate Gang of 8 pleaded with Obama not to release his own plan. The Democrats were concerned that if the effort was too closely associated with Obama it was doomed. Obama reluctantly agreed to take a back-seat on the issue.
So, what does Obama’s increasingly high-profile on the issue at this critical juncture mean? Perhaps he believes victory is near and wants to ensure he gets political credit for delivering on his campaign promises.
A more intriguing possibility is suggested by a story in The Washington Post on Friday. John Favreau, former chief speechwriter for Obama, explained how the White House navigates the polarized political environment in Washington.
“If it looks like there’s a path to something passing, then, as in immigration reform, he’s got to step back,” Favreau said. That doesn’t mean Obama has to keep mum. But he does have to keep himself out of the headlines. “All of our immigration speeches have been very toned down,” noted Favreau.
“When it doesn’t look like there’s a path forward, you light a fire under these guys by going to the public and making your case,” Favreau said. “That hasn’t worked as much. But when you have a situation where you don’t see the votes for something passing, there’s no other option than going to the public.”
Could Obama’s public emergence on the issue reflect a belief that a comprehensive bill isn’t likely to pass Congress? It could be a calculation that, with a pathway to citizenship blocked in this Congress, it benefits Democrats to again make this a political issue. Re-politicizing the issue makes negotiations on the underlying policy much more difficult.
Obama’s new high-profile on immigration may be the beginning of the end of the Senate bill.