So, President Obama, backed into a corner by a sluggish economy and what many saw as a gaffe – saying that the private sector, compared to the public sector, was doing just fine – found himself delivering a major speech on the economy, and how best to assure it recovers, without destroying the middle class and hammering the poor and the elderly in the process. His choice of words about the private sector was unfortunate, but his speech was a model of clarity and quite sensible – as we did try cutting taxes on the rich, deregulating the financial sector and most everything else in sight, and tried to save money to pay for those tax cuts for the rich by ridding ourselves of as much of the social safety net as possible – assuring that states had to lay off teachers and cops and firefighters and stop filling potholes and all the rest. It didn’t work. Romney and the Republicans are on record saying they want to do much more of that sort of thing, and if you think that might somehow work this time, when it didn’t work before and has never once worked in the past, sure, vote for them. It’s your funeral. But if you want more than just the rich to have money in their pockets to buy things and keep the economy functioning, don’t.
That was the gist of it. Don’t take him at his word – that’s what the Republicans say they want to do, and one should assume that’s what they would do. You should take them at their word. In fact, Obama asked political reporters to fact-check what he said about the Republican positions, so everyone understood he wasn’t just making this all up. Perhaps that was a show of self-confidence, which some people find impressive. But no Republican howled that he was distorting their position. Romney had mocked Obama for suggesting we needed more teachers and cops and firefighters – calling Obama out of touch. That’s on record. Obama suggested that removing more and more of those people from the workforce – firing more of those teachers and cops and firefighters, who are employed providing either education or public protection – while at the same time eliminating unemployment benefits and food stamps and such – was a sure way to tank the economy. Do you want hundreds of thousands more unemployed, and this time with no way to feed their kids? If you want to assure a real full-blown depression – this time with hardly any services of any kind for anyone, even when their house catches fire – sure, vote for these guys.
He was just calling out the difference in the way the two parties see things. But he also wanted a federal government that is leaner and more efficient and more responsive to the American people:
I’ve signed a law that cuts spending and reduces our deficit by $2 trillion. My own deficit plan would strengthen Medicare and Medicaid for the long haul by slowing the growth of health care costs – not shifting them to seniors and vulnerable families. And my plan would reduce our yearly domestic spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in nearly 60 years. So, no, I don’t believe the government is the answer to all our problems. I don’t believe every regulation is smart or that every tax dollar is spent wisely. I don’t believe that we should be in the business of helping people who refuse to help themselves.
And he noted that he has cut taxes for small businesses eighteen times and approved “fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his” and is “implementing over five hundred reforms to fix regulations that were costing folks too much for no reason.” So maybe he’s a closet Republican, or a better Republican than any of them are – or something. Maybe it’s that famous Bill Clinton man-in-the-sensible-middle triangulation. But there Obama was, rolling along and making clear and forceful distinctions between him and the other guys, led by Romney now – and then he wasn’t. Many might have wondered, when all was said and done, what he stands for, really. We need to cut government, but we shouldn’t, but we should. Or maybe it’s all in how you cut government here, and pump it up there, picking and choosing what’s best in all sorts of specific circumstances. But that’s too subtle for a bumper-sticker political campaign. Yes, government is hard. But you win elections by saying that it’s simple, really. Everyone wants to believe that.
And in the Economist, Will Wilkinson summed it up nicely:
Obama’s meandering reflections on togetherness, the glory of big infrastructure projects, green industrial policy, and a tedious list of sundry nickel-and-dime initiatives seemed to me only to underscore that if he “doesn’t believe the government is the answer to all our problems” as he claims, that’s only because he believes government is the answer to most of our problems and is splitting hairs. By the time he got around to the forced big finish, Mr Obama sounded more like the guy Mr Romney wants him to be than the sensible centrist he aimed to appear. Successful triangulation sometimes means knowing when to shut up.
And Andrew Sullivan pushes back:
The actual choice we now face is either a draconian exercise in budget cutting entirely on the backs of the middle class and poor, exempting the wealthy – or a deal with Obama for a more balanced and less ideological and more inclusive collective sacrifice. Maybe this choice argument will be swamped by pure GOP hazing, mockery and taunting in a terrible economy that could suddenly get worse. But the choice argument is all Obama has. He should not be berated for making it.
But hazing and mockery and taunting are the sum and substance of all of American politics now. Obama seems to be a pleasant and gracious fellow, and a good father, and a first-rate and subtle thinker, and a true gentleman – if that word still means anything these days. Maybe he shouldn’t be in politics, where the brutish and mean-spirited win – where they’re cheered on for just that. The speech he gave on the economy fell flat. It was too thoughtful and balanced.
So it’s no wonder that next day Obama simply changed the subject:
Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children will be allowed to remain in the country without fear of deportation and able to work, under an executive action the Obama administration announced on Friday. Administration officials said the president used existing legal authority to make the broad policy change, which could temporarily benefit more than 800,000 young people. He did not consult with Congress, where Republicans have generally opposed measures to benefit illegal immigrants.
The policy, while not granting any permanent legal status, clears the way for young illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows, work legally and obtain driver’s licenses and many other documents they have lacked.
“They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” President Obama said in announcing the new policy in the White House Rose Garden on Friday. He said he was taking “a temporary stopgap measure” that would “lift the shadow of deportation from these young people” and make immigration policy “more fair, more efficient and more just.”
Yes, he can do that by executive order – he’s charged with enforcing that law, but gets to decide how to enforce it – where to direct the available resources. So you keep deporting the bad guys and jerks, and in fact step up that effort, and you decide to no longer work on deporting illegal immigrants who came here before they were sixteen, and who have lived here for at least five years, and are in school, and are high school graduates or military veterans in good standing. And this only applies to immigrants under thirty, who have absolutely clean criminal records. It’s all a matter of how you direct the available resources, a purely administrative matter. And everyone knows that in the last three years Obama has deported more than a million immigrants, far more than any president since the fifties – so he really has been enforcing the law. You might think of it like this – the cops don’t ticket everyone going fifty-six in a fifty-five zone. They look for the assholes doing ninety. This is the same sort of thing.
And it’s good politics:
Young people, who have been highly visible and vocal activists despite their undocumented status, have been calling on Mr. Obama for more than a year to stop deporting them and allow them to work. Many of them were elated and relieved on Friday.
“People are just breaking down and crying for joy when they find out what the president did,” said Lorella Praeli, a leader of the United We Dream Network, the largest coalition of illegal immigrant students.
And it puts the Republicans in a spot:
Republicans reacted angrily, saying the president had overstepped his legal bounds to do an end run around Congress. Some Republicans accused Mr. Obama of violating the law. “The president’s action is an affront to the process of representative government by circumventing Congress and with a directive he may not have the authority to execute,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It seems the president has put election-year politics above responsible policies.”
And Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa, who is perpetually angry about illegal immigrants, said he would sue the White House to stop the measure, and there goes the Republican’s last hope for the Latino vote, on a minor administrative matter:
“Now let’s be clear: this is not an amnesty,” Mr. Obama said in the Rose Garden, anticipating the Republican response. “This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix.”
But it does change things:
The group of illegal immigrants that will benefit from the policy is similar to those who would have been eligible to become legal permanent residents under the Dream Act, legislation that Mr. Obama has long supported. An effort by the White House to pass the bill in late 2010 was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. Mr. Obama called on Congress again Friday to pass that legislation. …
Illegal immigrants said the new policy would make a major difference in their lives. As students, when they graduate from high school, they often cannot go on to college because they are not eligible for financial aid and must pay higher tuition rates. If they do succeed in graduating from college, regardless of their academic accomplishments, they cannot be legally employed in the United States or obtain driver’s or professional licenses. …
Immigrant student leaders praised Mr. Obama, saying his action should convince other students that advocacy could be effective, even for immigrants without legal status. Although the reprieve is temporary, the leaders said they expected that the majority of students would seize the opportunity to work and come out into the open.
And suddenly people forgot that complex speech on the economy, but Jonathan Chait argues this is also good for the economy:
Immigration policy as a whole is a huge mess. We have millions of people living here illegally, which is not only bad for them but bad for the rest of us, since they can’t pay taxes or otherwise productively enmesh themselves in American society. Nobody has been able to solve the problem. Finding and deporting them all is a practical impossibility. The only solution entails offering them legal status in some way, but conservatives refuse to accept such a move because they believe, sensibly enough, that rewarding illegal immigrants would only encourage more illegal immigration.
So Obama had a plan, that didn’t work, and now he’s correcting it:
Obama came into office with a two-part plan to handle immigration. First, he increased enforcement of the laws, stepping up deportations, in hopes that this would convince hard-liners to make a deal on large-scale reform. Second, he tried to pass, as an immediate compromise measure, the DREAM Act. That would offer legal status to people who came to the United States as children, so long as they have avoided legal trouble and completed a certain level of education or served in the military.
But both the policy and the politics have been in a shambles. In 2010 Republicans, along with a handful of moderate Democrats, killed the DREAM Act. So immigration advocates have been furious with Obama because the DREAM Act didn’t pass. (Romney, characteristically, has attacked Obama for this, in keeping with his general approach for blaming the president for everything that happens, including things that Republicans have done.) Obama’s attempts to mollify immigration advocates have run into the difficulty that he has, in fact, ramped up deportations in an attempt to mollify immigration hard-liners. And the immigration hard-liners oppose him anyway because he’s Barack Obama, which means that his attempts to woo them with stronger enforcement have done zero good.
Basically, everybody hates him.
So it was time to fix that:
Starting last year, Obama decided that being hated by everybody is a bad plan, and he might as well at least get the people he actually agrees with to like him. So he started backing away from the hardline enforcement of existing laws. Obama decided last summer to direct immigration authorities to use “discretion” in whom they deport – basically, urging officials to stop looking for illegal immigrants who were otherwise obeying the law and instead focus on real criminals. Today’s move goes much further. It’s a grant of official legal status to those who immigrated illegally. Rather than just nudge officials to look the other way at law-abiding immigrants who came as children, the administration is formally offering them legal sanction. Obama is unilaterally imposing the DREAM Act.
So Chait sees this as a major policy reform in the face of political gridlock, and good politics:
He needs to fight against Romney’s argument that the failure of the DREAM Act is his fault. His unilateral action will help, primarily, by actually improving the conditions of people who had been living in fear of deportation. (Though keep in mind: None of them can vote, since they’re all by definition non-citizens.) It will also create a broad (and accurate) sense that Obama cares about and wants to help the immigrant community. And to whatever extent Romney and the Republicans attack him for it – it will further help draw clear lines between the parties, eroding Romney’s efforts to blame Obama for Republican opposition. Of course, it also comes with the risk of alienating voters who want to crack down on illegal immigration, though in all likelihood there aren’t all that many persuadable voters he could lose on the issue.
And there’s this:
The most important thing is that some one million young people will now have a chance to live their lives in this country free of the terror that their parents’ actions (actions borne of nothing worse than a desire for freedom and opportunity) will not expose them to the horrors of deportation. They may not be American citizens, but most of us consider them our fellow Americans, and can regard the measure of relief they now have gained with relief of our own, and joy.
And Romney had to give in – saying the general idea is just fine, but not how Obama did this:
“I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis so they know what their future would be in this country,” Romney said.
He continued: “I think the actions that the president took today make it more difficult to reach that kind of long term solution because an executive order, of course, is a short-term matter that can be reversed by subsequent presidents.”
Yes, no one quite knew what he was saying. There’s no reason a long term solution would be any harder now. They’re still against that. And would Romney say he would reverse Obama’s executive order? He flat-out refused to say – which was a bit awkward. And here’s a bit more at Talking Points Memo:
“During the primaries, Gov. Romney called the DREAM Act a handout and said he would veto it. His ‘solution’ to our immigration challenges was self-deportation,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement. “The president remains committed to passing the DREAM Act, which was drafted with bipartisan support, but he won’t sit back and allow these children to get deported in the face of inaction. Congressional Republicans must end their continued obstruction to allow us to achieve the ultimate goal of signing the DREAM Act into law.”
And you can’t escape the recent past:
During the primaries, Romney bludgeoned his opponents for suggesting that dealing with the children of illegal immigrants was a noble goal. When Rick Perry told a Florida debate audience that Republicans opposed to the idea behind his state’s version of DREAM Act measures don’t “have a heart” Romney pounced.
“My friend Gov. Perry said if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals, that you don’t have a heart,” Romney told a Florida crowd the next day. “I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.”
Perry’s crime was signing a law granting in-state tuition prices to the children of illegal immigrants in Texas. The bill was passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Texas. At the time, Romney said it “makes no sense.”
It’s all on record, and Romney thought he could undo the damage:
Romney has avoided the topic of immigration ever since the primary fight came to an end. He’s shied from the topic, even when speaking to Hispanic audiences, and has insisted that his quest to win the Hispanic vote will be focused solely on the economy.
Good luck with that – and now things just got worse for him. And of course this didn’t help:
In an effort to court Latino voters, the RNC’s Spanish-language outreach website installed a prominent photo of adorable Latino children as its main image. Or at least that’s what the RNC thought the photo depicted. It turns out the kids aren’t Latino at all.
In an embarrassing mix-up, US News and World Report discovered that RNCLatinos.com used a stock photo apparently depicting Asian children on the site. The image they chose is tagged by its creators with such terms as “asian,” “thailand,” “japanese” and “interracial,” as are dozens of related photos by the same source featuring Asian preschoolers playing in parks.
The RNC then said “an outside vendor developed the site and it is being corrected immediately.”
Damn, it’s hard to find good help these days. And the image is now gone and there no picture at all, just a banner – HISPANIC LATINO STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS. But this may prove that the Republicans are truly and inclusively colorblind – brown, yellow, whatever – it’s all the same to them. But Jefferson Morley sees a bigger problem for Republicans:
By extending the protection of the law to once demonized classes – gay couples last month, undocumented students today – Obama has created new realities that opponents now have to undo. The issue is no longer whether extending protection is legitimate. The question is whether withdrawing the protection is wise or popular. Obama’s shift on gay marriage was a classic political flip flop – but the muted Republican reaction reflects the reality that it is harder to argue for withdrawing legal protections than for denying them in the first place. …
Chris Newman, director of the National Day Laborers Network, expressed hope the decision will “galvanize national consensus that this is the right thing to do and give some political caution to the Republicans. Would President Romney really undo this DHS policy and deport hundreds of thousands of young people?” …
The fact that the Republican presidential candidate and the president of the immigration bar are both talking about “a long-term solution” for undocumented young people is a sign that a new debate about immigration is underway, one in which even Mitt Romney sees undocumented immigrants as an asset to be protected, not a problem to be “self-deported.”
So sometimes it’s wise to change the subject. You didn’t like that subtle and complex speech on the economy? Fine – try this.
Hey, maybe this quiet and thoughtful and pleasant man really should be in politics. He does know how to play the game, by simply changing the game.