Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Obama ascendant II:
The president’s immigration-game change

ON FRIDAY, an administration known for making grand, defining jiu-jitsu moves, the kind that define a presidency and advance democratic principles, made another one. In one swift, stunning announcement, President Obama reframed the contours of the immigration debate, taking action in the face of deliberate Republican atrophy, and leaving his presidential challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Republicans generally, stuck in a moment they can’t get out of.

Speaking in the Rose Garden, Obama announced that, effective immediately, ‪the United States will stop deporting young undocumented immigrants, barring the federal government from starting deportation procedures for illegal immigrants under the age of 30.

The president’s policy covers those who came to the United States before age 16; have lived in the country for at least five years; have no criminal record; and are in school, high school graduates, or military veterans. All in all, an estimated 800,000 young people living in American shadows. Until now.

It was a decision with great emotional resonance; for those Americans, it wasn't so much a policy statement as the opening of an existential door. The Obama announcement moves the needle on governmental reaction to the illegal immigrant experience, reflects the Obama White House’s engagement with the issue as something more than policy. It injects blood and marrow into a narrative that’s been too long populated by officials and clinical objectives and images of shadowy criminal types foisted on the American people as surrogates for the everyday people just trying to live.

People like Frida Ulloa. The 23-year-old senior at Florida International University in Miami, an undocumented person from Peru, knew something was big was happening by the flurry of text messages she received on Friday.

"So I turned on the news, and I heard the news and I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Ulloa told NPR. "I was so shocked, I was crying.”

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The immediate impact on Republican lawmakers was no less obvious — even before it happened. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and darling of the Tea Party strain of the Republican Party, had been planning to present Congress with his own version of immigration reform, many of its points distilled in what was once called the DREAM Act (the same legislation Obama borrowed from on Friday). Apparently sensing or knowing what was coming from the White House, Rubio withdrew his plan on Monday. Then he criticized what the president had done.

"He's basically taking a very significant issue that needs to be solved in a long-term way that's measured, reasonable and balanced and deciding by edict, by fiat basically, to solve it in the short term, which happens to coincide with the November election," Rubio told NPR.

In the short term, Rubio was clearly wasting his time. The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that Latino voters in key battleground states backed the president’s decision, according to a new poll.

“The Latino Decisions survey found that Obama’s move had wiped out an earlier ‘enthusiasm deficit’ among Hispanic voters over the administration’s deportation policies,” reported Paul West of The Times. “By contrast, the poll found that Latino voters were sharply opposed to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s call for illegal immigrants to ‘self-deport.’”

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Forty-nine percent of the Latino voters in five states with significant portions of Latino voters — Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Arizona — “said Obama’s move made them more enthusiastic about the president, compared with 14% who were less enthusiastic,” The Times reported.

Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist, told The Times that Friday’s announcement “appears to have clearly erased Obama’s enthusiasm deficit among Latinos.”

According to The Bloomberg National Poll, released on Tuesday, 64 percent of likely voters surveyed after Obama's announcement said they backed the policy, while 30 percent said they disagreed. Independents supported the decision by 2-1.

Obama’s immigration move has stymied the Republicans in general and Romney in particular. Conservatives have been flummoxed. P’wned by its call to practicality. Even William Kristol, mandarin of the modern conservative movement, offered full-throated support for Obama’s decision. “I think it’s a sensible policy,” Kristol said on Fox News Sunday. “It’s the right thing to do, actually.”

And Romney, who’s locked the steering wheel of his campaign bus in a right-turning position since the primary season, is now boxed in on the issue by (1) his own intransigence about being anything more or other than severely conservative on immigration matters, and (2) by having no concrete plan of his own with which to counter the Obama initiative.

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IT'S A LESSON in how the macro and the micro can be interchangeable in their importance in American politics. Even accepting the value of viewing the upcoming election as a macro statement about the economy, there are still a multitude of micro matters — constituency-based concerns — that dovetail with or collide with those macro-economic issues in a way that calls for a specificity and nuance in addressing those constituencies. Specificity and nuance the Republicans don’t have. Specificity and nuance the Republicans have assiduously agreed not to have.

Nate Silver, writing Tuesday in the New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog, observed: “Even in an era where partisanship is on the rise, demographic changes exert a gravitational pull on policy and politics and are occasionally enough to overcome political divisions.”

On MSNBC’s “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell,” New York magazine political writer John Heilemann seemed to understand what a potentially seismic event this was: “Among the many brilliant political effects of this move on Friday — in addition to blunting a lot of attacks that could have been made by Republican superPACs on Obama on immigration ... it focuses back on, ‘what is an issue that Hispanics care about specifically as Hispanics?’

“And once you start having that conversation, Republicans are in a world of hurt ... There’s no good place for Romney to go on this. He can’t take a position that is popular with the country, popular with Hispanics and also popular with his base. There is no good answer.”

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That much was obvious between Sunday and Monday. What Heilemann observed on Tuesday was already happening, as the Republican leadership scrambled to come up with an answer. Or, in the case of the Republican nominee, scrambled to not come up with an answer.

Romney really stepped in it on Sunday, in an interview with Bob Schieffer of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” from Lebanon, Pa.

Mitch McConnell wasn’t much better: “"I think most of my members are interested in learning what Governor Romney has to say on this issue," McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, when the Senate Minority Leader was asked about the Obama announcement. "We're going to withhold judgment, most of us, until that time."

It’s expected, or certainly hoped, that Romney will have more to say than what he told Bob Schieffer this Thursday, when he speaks at the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference in Orlando, Fla. — the day before President Obama addresses the same organization.

It’s also pretty much a given that Romney, both at the NALEO conference and at every campaign stop from here on in, will try to pivot back to his comfortable campaign mode: firing his customary blustery, ad hominem broadsides at Obama and the state of the domestic economy.

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BUT SOON, maybe as soon as Friday, what we may hear from the president could be a nightmare conflation for Republicans: President Obama artfully, logically, passionately connecting the dots between ending the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants and those immigrants' current and future role in a resurgent work force, one ready to reinvigorate … the domestic economy.

The political dimension of the president’s action is obvious; what’s less obvious, certainly to the Republicans, is how it reflects a grasp of the collective unconscious about the immigration question.

Nothing could be clearer, certainly to Team Obama: It’s impossible to separate The Economy from the everyday people that make The Economy what it is. And it’s just as impossible to ignore the fact that more and more of those everyday American dreamers have Spanish surnames.

Image credits: President Obama: Rubio: Bloomberg logo: © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.

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