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What President Obama’s immigration speech tells us about 2012

at 04:44 PM ET, 05/10/2011


President Obama has a delicate dance to do on immigration reform. Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg
President Obama’s speech Tuesday in Texas was cast as an attempt at restarting the conversation about comprehensive immigration reform but will almost certainly land with a dull thud in a Congress wary of taking on an issue so fraught with political pitfalls.

Obama, of course, knows that. And so, his speech today is rightly understood — and analyzed — as a political document rather than a policy one.

So, what does the speech tell us about how immigration fits into Obama’s broader political strategy in 2012?

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Viewing it through that political lens, the speech is — on its face -- trying to serve two very different constituencies.

On the one hand are Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic group in the country and one that has voted heavily for Democrats in recent elections. (Obama carried the Latino vote with 67 percent in 2008, Democrats won the group with 60 percent in 2010.)

Hispanics, broadly, support the idea of a comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million (or so) people in the country illegally.

Obama made a bow to this sentiment early in the address; “We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants — a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts,” he said.

The other constituency at which Obama’s speech was aimed is independent/swing voters who tend to view the idea of comprehensive immigration reform more skeptically.

Obama touted a series of border enforcement successes under his watch — the construction of a border fence, the seizure of 31 percent more drugs etc. — as evidence that he had listened to (and answered) critics who said that securing the border was a sine qua non for comprehensive immigration reform.

“The presence of so many illegal immigrants make a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally,” he added.

It’s a delicate political dance. Obama has to make clear to Hispanics that he shares their vision of the American dream while simultaneously sending a message to swing voters that the rule of law matters and that he has put policies in place that are actually making the border more secure.

His strategy to do just that — at least judging from his speech in Texas — is two-pronged: a straight-forward economic appeal and a broader (and oft-repeated) message about the need for Washington to take on big problems.

Several times in his speech in El Paso, the president sought to cast the need for immigration reform in economic terms.

“Immigration reform is an economic imperative,” he said at one point; At another, he argued that “one way to strengthen the middle class is to reform our immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everyone else.”

Obama and his political team know that the economy is, by far, the most important issue for most voters heading into 2012. Immigration, well, isn’t. But, by twinning the two — rhetorically at least — Obama is seeking to make clear that immigration should matter to anyone worried about the future of the country’s economy, giving it a relevance beyond what it currently has in many peoples’ minds.

Then there is Obama’s less specific appeal to the widespread belief — across voters of all demographic groups — that Washington is playing politics at the expense of the public.

“We’ve seen good faith efforts — from leaders of both parties — fall prey to the usual political games,” he said. Later, Obama said that “we have to put the politics aside”, adding: “Washington is behind the country on this.”

That idea is indicative of Obama’s larger messaging as he heads into his 2012 reelection campaign — that Washington is resistant to doing big things but that he has demonstrated an ability to make the gears of political power work for average people.

It’s a complicated approach to a complicated issue. But it’s one with significant political implications as the President seeks to re-build — and grow — the coalition that helped elect him in 2008.

 
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