photo by Annette Bernhardt
“Kick the can” is a pastime that bores today’s kids, who can carry dozens of games on their phones, but it is still a White House favorite.
In the latest iteration, President Obama said last weekend that he will delay announcing any immigration policy action until after the November election, despite a promise in June to act before the end of summer. An anonymous White House official, speaking off the record, told The Washington Post that “because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections.”
In other words, the president made a political decision to conceal from voters his plans on immigration because of the criticism those plans will surely receive from Republicans. In the White House’s view, only the Republicans are acting politically in this situation.
This behavior is of a piece with Obama’s longstanding history of not taking a position, or not announcing one, until he feels the political coast is clear. It is a pattern that is easy to identify. We saw it with his four-year “evolution” on same-sex marriage, until his vice president essentially forced his hand in June 2012.
We continue to see it with the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama postponed beyond the 2010 elections, and then beyond the 2012 elections and now beyond the 2014 elections. We’ll see about 2016; he may kick the issue past the end of his presidency completely, assuming that backers are still interested in building a pipeline at all by then.
We see it, too, with Obamacare’s open enrollment period this year, which does not begin until November 15. That’s 11 days after the election, in case you were counting. This start date also yields about half the time offered for the stunning success that was last year’s open enrollment rollout.
This is the same president who recently said that the geopolitical situation isn’t worse than it has been in past years; it’s just Facebook and Twitter making it seem that way. Tell that to the people living in territory controlled by the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, groups that support immigrant rights have reacted loudly and furiously to the delay. Cristina Jimenez, the managing director of United We Dream, said “The president’s latest broken promise is another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community.” Arturo Carmona, the executive director of Presente.org, said, “The announcement is pretty shameful and once again demonstrates that for Obama, politics comes before Latino lives.”
The Service Employees International Union, one of several labor unions pushing for immigration reform, also denounced the White House’s decision to put the matter on hold. Mary Kay Henry, the head of SEIU, said union members are “deeply disheartened that the dreams of hard-working immigrant families who have long contributed to the fabric of the American life remain in jeopardy.”
All of this anger is easy to understand in context. While observers have debated how effective the move will be for Democrats running this fall, the consequences for immigrants are much more black-and-white. If the pace of deportations mirrors that of 2013, around 60,000 deportations will result from the delay.
While Republicans have torn themselves apart fighting over immigration for most of the past decade, Democrats have essentially enjoyed a free ride. They have come out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and a path to legal status for immigrants currently considered illegal only in contexts where they did not have to vote for it. Not only would such votes jeopardize Democrats in some Republican-leaning states; in many cases, those votes would also offend Democrats’ union constituents - though that may be less of an issue during the Obama administration, since some unions, notably the SEIU, have aggressively marketed themselves to Latinos and immigrant groups.
And, as more than one observer has noted, the White House’s delay certainly will not prevent Republicans from raising the issue in elections this fall. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner were both quick to criticize the delay and the presumed action that will follow. For all that the White House has suggested that Republicans are the ones politicizing the issue, Obama’s self-imposed deadline and subsequent about-face have made the Democrats’ vulnerability on immigration all the more stark.
Obama has tried to have it both ways on immigration, deporting millions while claiming to be a friend to immigrant families. His latest inaction reminds voters that on this, as on many other topics, the president tends to say whatever is convenient, while masking his true intentions in the relatively infrequent circumstances where he has any.