Obama Returns to Vegas a Weaker President

In his second immigration speech at the same Nevada high school, the president faced a very different political reality.

It really hasn't been that long since President Obama's last visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. It was only 661 days ago that he launched the immigration push he hoped would give him the first big legislative victory of his second term. But to really measure how much political time has passed all you had to do was watch the president's return to the home of the Dragons on Friday and hear his adjusted assessment of the current immigration debate.

Though he ended his remarks with a rousing and emotional appeal that brought his audience to their feet, the Obama on display for most of the speech was a more somber and more reflective version of the president seen here on Jan. 29, 2013. That president enjoyed a 55 percent approval rating. That president was only eight days removed from a well-received Inaugural Address in which he singled out immigration, promising to "find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity." And that president saw a bipartisan opening in Washington where, he said, "the differences are dwindling, where a broad consensus is emerging and where a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America."

That president drew chants of "Sí, se puede"—"Yes, we can!"—when he declared, "I'm here today because the time has come for commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform. The time is now. Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time."

But this president—the one who noted his much grayer hair—knows better. This president's ratings have dropped by more than 15 points. This president knows the differences are sharper than ever, the consensus has narrowed, and the call for action in the recent election was not for his type of comprehensive immigration reform.

If he had any doubts about how much things have changed, all Obama had to do Friday was glance to his right. There, seated along with other members of Congress, was Rep. Steve Horsford, just as he was at the last speech. But this year, a still-stunned Horsford is in his last days in office. Considered a rising Democratic star, he was upset 48 to 46 percent in this month's House election by a tea-party Republican, Cresent Hardy, who was widely considered too much on the fringe to ever appeal to this nominally Democratic district. Horsford, who would have been a vote for Obama's brand of immigration reform, was a victim of being seen as too close to the unpopular president.

Looking back on the time since his last appearance, the president seemed perplexed by the unraveling of his high hopes for passage of a reform bill. "Nobody was happier than me," he said about the Senate's passage of a bill. "And when it passed the Senate, we said, all right, let's send it over to the House. We've got the votes in the House." Not so fast. What followed was what he called a year-and-a-half of Republican intransigence. A year-and-a-half of what might have beens. "If they had allowed a vote on that kind of bill," Obama said, "it would have passed. I would have signed it. It would be the law right now."

Long accused of not knowing how to make deals with Republicans, the president insisted jocularly that he had tried to win over the House speaker. "I cajoled and I called and I met. I told John Boehner I would ... wash your car. I'll walk your dog. Whatever you need to do, just call the bill." But there was no House vote.

He seemed similarly perplexed at the rush of GOP criticism of the unilateral executive steps he announced Thursday night to temporarily lift the threat of deportation from 5 million undocumented immigrants. Noting that some Republicans have now threatened not to work with him on other bills to punish him for his executive action, Obama asked, "Why? Why?" He explained, "I didn't dissolve parliament. That's not how our system works. You know, I didn't steal away the various clerks in the Senate and the House who manage bills. They can still pass a bill. I don't have a vote in Congress."

There were sparks of the old Obama at moments in the speech even among the wistful recollections of the high hopes of 2013. "I've come back to Del Sol to tell you I'm not giving up," he said. Then, his voice rising and the cheers washing over him, he said again, "I will never give up. I will never give up. I will not give up." To that, the audience rewarded him with the chant so familiar from 2013—"Sí, se puede."