On Immigration, Obama in a Box of His Own Making

Delaying action on deportations makes sense, but no one is happy.

It is hard to argue with President Obama's political calculation that now is not the right time for him to stretch his executive powers and dictate sweeping changes in the nation's immigration system to include a form of amnesty for millions in the country illegally. Without doubt, that is good news for embattled Democratic senators running for reelection. And, almost certainly, he is correct that whatever he does is "more sustainable" if it is supported by the public.

But the fact that he is right on that point makes it even easier to fault him for what has been a clumsy administration process, and for his earlier decision to commit himself to a timetable that never made much sense politically.

It was a timetable born of his frustration at the refusal of House Republicans to seriously deal with immigration. That frustration was obvious when the president stood in the Rose Garden on June 30 and ordered his Cabinet officers to give him recommendations for action "before the end of the summer." He added, "I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay."

Now, very much thrown on the defensive, he has announced that there will, indeed, be "further delay"—probably several months of delay. And, in his interview Sunday with Chuck Todd of NBC's Meet the Press, the president made little effort to deny that politics is behind the shift. He insisted that a desire to save endangered Democratic senators is "not the reason" for his change. Instead, he said, the focus on the influx of unaccompanied Central American children had changed public opinion and changed the politics. "The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift mid-summer because of that problem," he conceded.

The reality is that a preelection amnesty never would have been helpful to Democrats running in Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Michigan, Louisiana, Iowa, and Kentucky. As The New York Times reported in August http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/upshot/why-house-republicans-feel-safe-ignoring-hispanics.html?_r=1&abt=0002&abg=0 Latino voters are 5 percent or less of the eligible voters in eight of the nine most contested states. Only in Colorado, where 10 percent of the likely voters are Hispanic, could an amnesty be helpful in turning out base voters.

In those eight states, the politics no doubt have worsened since the summer. But the basic dynamic has not changed, a point made repeatedly behind the scenes by those Democratic candidates. They opposed the White House timetable from the start.

In his explanation to Todd, the president cast the delay as a prudent response to the child crisis at the border and a desire to make sure whatever he does sticks. "I want to make sure we get it right," he said. At that point, he was interrupted by Todd, who said the delay "looks like election-year politics." The president pushed on, insisting, "I want to make sure that the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted." But he added, "Here's the other thing, Chuck, and I'm being honest now about the politics of it. This problem with unaccompanied children that we saw a couple of weeks ago where you had from Central America a surge of kids who were showing up at the border, got a lot of attention and a lot of Americans started thinking 'We've got this immigration crisis on our hands.' "

Obama noted the numbers showing the influx subsiding. "But," he acknowledged, "that's not the impression on people's minds. And what I want to do is when I take executive action, I want to make sure that it is sustainable." He added that anything he does "is going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration."¦ I want to spend some time even as we're getting all our ducks in a row for executive action. I also want to make sure the public understands why we're doing this, why it is the right thing for the American people, why it is the right thing for the American economy."

Based on the battering the president has received over the last 24 hours, it is clear that his allies in the Latino community do not understand the delay and are bitterly disappointed. No happier are Republicans who contend any action he is contemplating would be unconstitutional and wrong-headed. What was a terrible political summer for the president has not gotten any better just because Labor Day has arrived. But this latest blow could have been avoided had the president not let his frustration back in June set an unrealistic timetable.