President finds his voice on immigration

IMMIGRATION: President Obama greeted Astrid Silva, a reform advocate, prior to delivering remarks on immigration in Las Vegas last week.
IMMIGRATION: President Obama greeted Astrid Silva, a reform advocate, prior to delivering remarks on immigration in Las Vegas last week. AFP/Getty Images

A curious and unexpected thing happened the other night when President Obama announced his unilateral immigration plan: I listened to him. I mean really listened as he caught me up in the force of his arguments, his ideas, his words and the conviction behind them. After a long period in the rhetorical doldrums, our once-eloquent president found his voice again. After the midterm election drubbing, I wasn’t sure he ever would.

I confess that I stopped listening closely to the president soon after he was reelected. His words that once were inspirational and hope-filled fell flat on my ear. He seemed disengaged, aloof, overly intellectual and disdainful of the political process. The capper for me was his failure to take action against Syria’s Bashar Assad after drawing a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons against his own people. Assad did, but got away with it. Thereafter, Obama’s word in the Middle East, and at home, seemed to be worth little.

It didn’t help, of course, that Republicans in Congress were totally obstructionist, opposing the president on everything he tried to do.

But rather than devising a plan to force some Republicans to come around to his way of thinking, Obama retreated. Where Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan found some common ground with their political opponents, Obama sought and found none. And this stalemate wasn’t going to be fixed by inviting Mitch McConnell over for drinks or playing a round or two of golf with John Boehner.

It certainly won’t be fixed now that Obama has issued his executive order on immigration, but doing so casts his relationship with Congress and the GOP majority in a new light. And a better one for the president. The guy who looked to be a diminished lame duck just might find enough leverage to do some meaningful things in his final two years.

Obama’s immigration initiative is a good beginning. My only caveat is that he didn’t do it sooner and that it doesn’t go far enough. There will still be some 6 million people in the country illegally who are not covered by his plan. While many should be deported, others — the law-abiding parents of Dreamers, for example — should get a reprieve from deportation. Farm workers should also get some kind of special status. Lawmakers in Congress can fix those and other immigration policy problems, of course, by simply doing what the president challenged them to do: “Pass a bill.”

I doubt they will. Republicans are in a state of high dudgeon over the president’s action. Their knickers are in a gigantic twist. They’re shocked, just shocked, that he had the temerity to go down this road without them. Even if they were never going down that road themselves. True, such important policy decisions are better made legislatively. But they weren’t going to be by this Congress. As Obama pointed out, 16 months had passed since the Senate passed its bipartisan immigration bill, but the House version never got out of committee.

Rep.Mario Diaz-Balart, the Miami Republican, did yeoman’s work on that bill along with a bipartisan group he put together. Diaz-Balart was upset when Boehner wouldn’t let it come to the floor, where he says it probably would have passed.

At the Republican Governors Association meeting in Boca Raton, a gaggle of presidential hopefuls hissed, moaned and nearly spit up on their shoes when their post-election victory lap was interrupted by pesky questions from reporters about immigration. You would have thought that Obama had broken the Great Chain of Being by acting without the advice and consent of Congress. Indiana’s Mike Pence, for example, complained that Obama simply didn’t understand the message voters sent the White House on Nov. 4. The message, Pence inferred, was that Obama should come to heel because the GOP-dominated Congress was henceforth calling the shots.

Ah, but Obama has other plans. Just as he promised months ago in his State of the Union address, there are things the president can do on his own by executive order and, barring cooperation from Congress, he will in the time he has left in office.

Obama is the president, not a potted plant. He has the bully pulpit of the White House and can use it to his and the nation’s advantage. That is, if he keeps using the authentic voice he seems to have found again.