You can attribute some of the success of the current immigration bill to President Obama’s absence from the debate. A large number of Republicans are simply unable or unwilling to support a proposal that has Obama’s name attached. By stepping away from the process and leaving it to Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the Senate, Obama set the stage for cooperation and allowed a chance for success—a permission structure, as it were.
Yes, there have been hiccups and obstacles—in particular, Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s occasional threats to abandon the bill—but the general view is that, for the first time since 2007, comprehensive immigration reform has a real chance at passing. Which is why it was a bad move for President Obama to reinsert himself into the process with a speech this morning.
There was nothing interesting or remarkable about the president’s address—it was one in a long list of immigration speeches that focused on a particular category of immigrants (the DREAMers, in this case) and asked Congress to take action on a proposal. What makes this problematic is Obama’s decision to identify himself with the Gang of Eight bill:
“This week, the Senate will consider a common-sense, bipartisan bill that is the best chance we’ve had in years to fix our broken immigration system,” said Mr. Obama, speaking from the East Room of the White House, surrounded by a group of law enforcement representatives, business and labor leaders, faith leaders, and Republican and Democratic elected officials who support the Senate legislation. “To truly deal with this issue Congress needs to act. And that moment is now.” Republican supporters of comprehensive reform can’t be happy about this; it complicates their ongoing attempts to win buy-in from conservative lawmakers and activists.
In no way is it an exaggeration to say that President Obama’s speech came at the worst possible time. Later this afternoon, the Senate will take a procedural vote that will determine whether or not chamber decides to begin debate on the Gang of Eight bill.
Insofar that Rubio, Jeff Flake, Lindsay Graham and others were having a hard time bringing conservatives to their side, it’s now even more difficult. And if House Republicans take this as a cue to reflexively oppose reform, it puts Boehner in a tight spot—does he try to build a GOP majority for the bill? Does he abandon the “Hastert rule” and pass a bill with Democratic support! Or does he leave the effort altogether?
If this sounds dramatic, then you are drastically underestimating the anti-Obama furor of the Republican base, which has ended political careers for the sin of being friendly with the president. If Obama wants comprehensive immigration reform to pass, he needs to stay completely out of the way. If he wants to claim some credit, he can do so at the signing.