The first inkling that might not be the case came when Obama named Emanuel his chief of staff. Consumed by other crises, Obama missed his self-imposed first-year deadline. “He kept stringing us along that whole first year,” Sharry said. “It became increasingly clear that his political capital was being used for other things—and was rapidly draining.” Worse, the administration sought to prove it was tough on illegal immigration by ratcheting up deportations. Senate Democrats brought the Dream Act up for a vote after the 2010 elections—in part because Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, had campaigned hard on the issue to mobilize Hispanic voters in Nevada for his reelection—but it failed, and the Tea Party takeover of the House took the issue off the table.
As Obama’s first term came to a close without action, his reelection campaign worried about declining voter enthusiasm among Hispanics. Republicans hadn’t done anything to win them over—the GOP presidential primaries, with their talk of “self-deportation” and electric fences, made sure of that—but they also had little reason to want to vote for Obama, who’d let them down. In June 2012, Obama announced he would unilaterally grant temporary amnesty to some young undocumented immigrants, a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
The action was controversial within Obamaworld, with acolytes of the Emanuel school worried it would rile up the right and turn off independents while striking Democrats as pandering. It was a dramatic stroke, with the potential to temporarily legalize hundreds of thousands of youths. But once Obama signed the order, his first major foray into executive action on immigration, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. No groundswell of previously unseen conservative anger erupted. Progressives and Hispanics hailed the decision, while many moderate voters gave the president points for taking action on an issue Congress was too gridlocked to address. To Latino voters, almost as significant as the policy was the fact that the president had taken a political risk for their sake. And the fact that it had paid off was even better news.
After Obama won reelection, many Republican strategists blamed Mitt Romney’s positioning on immigration for his defeat. A near-unanimous chorus of voices within the party—whose moderate, pro-business establishment had long favored reform—counseled the party to embrace the issue out of political necessity. Everyone from Sean Hannity to Charles Krauthammer to Paul Ryan and Speaker John Boehner touted the possibility. A bipartisan group of senators made quick progress on a compromise bill. The Senate passed comprehensive reform in June 2013 with a solid bipartisan majority of 68 votes.
But as attention moved to the House, Boehner quickly came under pressure from conservatives opposed to any sort of legalization for the undocumented. He set a series of increasingly difficult-to-meet conditions for reform, assuring opponents that the House would not take up the Senate bill, that any bill the House produced would come through the regular committee process, and that it would have to have the support of a majority of Republicans. In January 2014, House Republicans gathered for their annual retreat and announced a set of general immigration-reform principles, including legalization. But inside the closed-door meeting, the document was not well received. Longtime reform antagonists like Representative Steve King of Iowa predictably decried it. More troubling, the less vocal middle contingent that Boehner had hoped would support him was also leery, fearing the political risk.