At the meeting that night with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Obama’s emotional reference to his race surprised attendees and suggested the earlier argument had left an impression. A year earlier, caucus members had lectured Obama on how immigration was the civil rights issue of their time and how Hispanic voters would judge his presidency on how he handled it. Now it was heartening for some members to hear Obama acknowledge cultural parallels.
One attendee touched by the president’s remarks was Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a former taxi driver of Puerto Rican descent who had devoted himself almost full time to promoting more liberal immigration laws.
“For the first time, he shared some of his feelings with us,” Gutierrez said.
But the lawmakers still remained frustrated that Obama, in their view, seemed unwilling to put any real political capital on the line.
Ten days after the encounter, Gutierrez delivered a fiery address at the rally on the Mall calling for presidential action.
White House aides had arranged with rally organizers for Obama to address the crowd with a taped message. “I’ve always pledged to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said, “and that’s a commitment that I reaffirm today.”
If his remarks were cause for optimism, it was short-lived. The following month, on a late-afternoon flight home, the president signaled to reporters aboard Air Force One that pursuing an immigration bill was not on the agenda for that year.
“We’ve gone through a very tough year, and I’ve been working Congress pretty hard,” he said. “So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue.”
To Bhargava, Gutierrez and others who had met with Obama weeks earlier, the president’s remarks were devastating. They knew there were disagreements, but for the first time, they believed that the White House was essentially giving up on major change before the congressional elections.
They planned another demonstration for May 1, this time directly in front of the White House. It coincided with the arrival of four young immigrants who had walked from Miami to build support for the Dream Act, the stalled legislation to legalize many veterans, students and other young people who had been brought to the United States illegally as children. Among the activists’ demands was that Obama ensure that people eligible for the Dream Act would not be deported.
Hundreds waved American flags and chanted, “Obama escucha, estamos en la lucha” (“Obama, listen, we’re in the fight”).Bhargava, Gutierrez and other activists were led off in handcuffs for refusing to leave.
Activists girded for another argument with the president in late June, when officials invited them back, yet again, for a sit-down.
The session began on a tense note when one of the participants, a young Colombian immigrant named Juan Rodriguez, refused to shake Obama’s hand as the president tried to greet him. Rodriguez, 20 at the time, had been invited to represent the “dreamers” who had walked from Miami but could not gain access to the White House because of their legal status. Rodriguez had recently gained legal residency.
“I’m sorry,” Rodriguez recalled telling Obama. He then started to tell the president that this breach of etiquette was a protest on behalf of fellow immigrants who could not attend. Obama, visibly annoyed, cut him off. “Okay, I get it. You’re not going to shake my hand,” the president said, quickly moving on to greet the next advocate.
The exchange set the tone for another testy meeting. Like the gathering in March, this one began with tension between Obama and Bhargava — only this time it was the president doing the talking. He said Bhargava had recently written unfairly critical blog posts, and he again told the group to redirect its attention to the Republicans.
Gustavo Torres, head of the activist group CASA of Maryland, came to Bhargava’s defense. “Mr. President, it’s not just Deepak,” Torres recalled saying. “All of us are very disappointed.”
The next day, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus returned for another adversarial meeting. Obama began by lecturing Gutierrez for constantly attacking him in public, according to people familiar with the meeting. At that point, they said, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)told the president that Hispanics were finding it “hard to reconcile” his stated support for helping immigrants and his refusal to exercise his executive powers.
Two days later, in a July 1 speech at American University, Obama called for a bipartisan solution to the country’s immigration problems — but the speech offered no new policy initiatives or promises of executive action.
Still, Obama hosted a series of Oval Office meetings over the next five months with Gutierrez, Menendez and other Hispanic lawmakers to consider what, if anything, could be done — perhaps in the lame-duck session after the November midterm elections.
The Senate had tried but failed in September to pass the Dream Act, a move viewed widely as a boost for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s efforts to mobilize Nevada’s large Hispanic electorate for his reelection.
Advocates were eager to try again. By November, Obama and the lawmakers agreed to push for another vote.
Frustrated by activists’ claims
In late October 2010, White House aides hosted a dozen or so leading gay rights activists to reassure them that Obama remained fully engaged on their issues, too.
Obama was not scheduled to meet with the group but did so after Jarrett told him that some of the activists “don’t feel your heart is in the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ” The senior adviser said she told the president that she was “trying to convince them that you’re there.”
Obama had heard the complaints before. He and his aides were frustrated by the claims from some activists that they weren’t doing enough.
It was the president’s personal involvement, supporters thought, that had pushed the Pentagon brass into supporting repeal. Part of that effort was pressing the military to conduct internal reviews examining how lifting the ban would affect soldiers and the institutions involved.
Advocates had been asking Obama for immediate action, aides recalled, but he thought that attaining military support for congressional action was necessary to help gay men and lesbians gain full acceptance — even if that process would take longer than advocates wanted.
White House officials had also remained in close touch with their allies at the Human Rights Campaign and other insider groups working to lobby Congress. Some advocates close to the White House saw an irony — that Obama was doing what the protesters wanted but could not advertise it because of the delicate nature of his relationship with the military.
To the organizers of GetEqual, only well-publicized pressure on Obama would ensure his enthusiastic support.
Back in March, at the same time Obama was tussling with immigration advocates, GetEqual had arranged for Army 1st Lt. Dan Choi, who was facing discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, to lead an unorthodox White House rally. Using handcuffs that Yandura had purchased at a sex shop near Dupont Circle, Choi and a fellow gay soldier became media sensations when they linked themselves to the White House gate.
A few weeks after that, about a half-dozen GetEqual hecklers riled Obama by repeatedly interrupting a speech he was delivering at a Los Angeles fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
“Don’t know exactly why you’ve got to holler, because we already hear you, all right?” Obama said, trying to quiet the shouts from the crowd. CNN was airing the remarks live. Obama showed a rare public flash of anger when a woman could be heard yelling, “It’s time for equality for all Americans.” In a sarcastic tone, he said to the demonstrator, “I’m sorry, do you want to come up here?”
Obama later vented to one of his senior aides, Jim Messina, while leaving the event in his limousine. He didn’t see why these activists were angry with him when he was so clearly supportive of their cause, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
By October, when Jarrett was telling Obama in the Oval Office that many of the advocates were getting nervous, he was eager to offer assurances.
“Bring them in,” Obama told Jarrett.
The group was escorted to the Roosevelt Room. For about a half-hour, activists listened as Obama walked through the details of his strategy for winning repeal that year in the lame-duck session.
“He made it as clear as he could that not only did he want to get it done, but that he intended to get it done,” Jarrett recalled.
The next day, Obama faced more skepticism on gay rights in a roundtable conversation with liberal bloggers at the White House. He pushed back when Joe Sudbay, a gay blogger, told him there was a “certain amount of disillusionment and disappointment in our community right now.”
“I guess my attitude is that we have been as vocal, as supportive of the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community as any president in history,” Obama said, according to a transcript posted later by Sudbay. Obama went on to list his achievements, such as appointments of openly gay people to senior posts and his action requiring hospitals to allow visits by same-sex partners. On “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he described his approach as “systematic and methodical.”
“And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified,” Obama concluded.
Sudbay was struck by what seemed to be the president’s conflicting feelings. Even as he was dismissive of gay activists’ complaints, Obama appeared moved by the parallels between the black civil rights movement and today’s gay rights struggles.
“One of my favorite pieces of literature is ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time,” Obama told Sudbay, referring to the document penned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 to answer sympathizers who worried that civil disobedience might be an unwise course. “And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better. So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.”
From cheers to tears
Obama spent much of Saturday morning, Dec. 18, 2010, in the Oval Office. He was calling lawmakers, mostly Democrats, to press for support of his priorities in the lame-duck session.
The president’s party had just experienced what he termed a “shellacking” in the midterms, but as the final session of the Democratic-led Congress came to a climax he stood on the verge of a clear legislative triumph. He struck a tax deal with Republicans. He secured approval for an arms-control treaty with Russia. And most important to his gay supporters, Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The Dream Act was a glaring exception. Obama had worked the phones, urging support from lawmakers worried that backing the bill would make them vulnerable to attacks of being soft on illegal immigration. But the measure fell five votes short of the 60 needed to avoid a Senate filibuster.
It was a bitter disappointment for advocates, who had always seen the Dream Act as the “motherhood and apple pie” piece of the immigration wars, the politically easy measure to help innocent kids.
As the votes came in that Saturday, the scene in an upstairs office in the West Wing captured the day’s emotions. Aides who had been working on “don’t ask, don’t tell” were cheering and high-fiving. Those who had been working for passage of the Dream Act were in tears.
As Jarrett later recalled, the president walked upstairs to hug and console the tearful aides. He pointed to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, years in the making, as inspiration for those working on immigration issues.
“This is a journey, and we will get there,” Obama told the staffers, according to aides.
At the emotional bill signing days later, White House officials seemed to offer a subtle acknowledgment that outside pressure played a part in pushing the legislation ahead. Among the invited guests at the ceremony were Choi, the gay Army lieutenant who had cuffed himself to the fence, along with Yandura and Lewis, two of the architects of the protests that had followed Obama throughout the year.
‘What can we do to work together?’
On the Tuesday after the Senate failed to pass the Dream Act, Obama hosted a few Hispanic lawmakers, including Gutierrez and Menendez, in the Oval Office.
The president conceded that the new Republican-led House would never pass the immigration legislation they all wanted.
So the president told the lawmakers that they should all “put our thinking caps on,” according to two people familiar with the meeting. “What can we do to work together?” the president asked.
Gutierrez was hopeful. For the first time, he thought that Obama seemed open to asserting his executive powers. He and Menendez laid out a series of specific executive actions Obama could take, including one to help those eligible for the Dream Act.
Obama, too, seemed upbeat. As the meeting broke up, before Gutierrez had a chance to slip his suit jacket back on, Obama engulfed the congressman in a bear hug.
A photo that sits on Gutierrez’s desk shows the president’s arms draped around the congressman’s shoulders. Gutierrez, grinning widely and holding his jacket in his left hand, is shown with his right arm around Obama’s shoulder and neck.
In a news conference the next day before he left for his Hawaiian holiday, Obama told reporters that the failure of the Dream Act was “maybe my biggest disappointment” of the session.
He and his aides signaled privately to lawmakers in the months that followed that some middle-ground resolution was in the works. Eventually, the administration would enact a policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” calling on immigration officials to focus on deporting serious criminals, repeat border-crossers and others considered security threats rather than students, veterans or seniors.
The policy, which would later include a case-by-case review of deportation cases, seemed like a potential victory for immigrant advocates. But so far, they have found the results to be disappointing. Only a fraction of cases would be closed under the review, and advocates remain wary.
For Gutierrez, the frustration reflected a profound evolution in emotions. He had felt great hope back in 2006, when he and then-Sen. Obama first discussed the prospects of a presidential campaign and what winning the White House might mean for immigrants. The hope turned to anticipation on Election Day, then frustration through months of protest and tense encounters, and then hopefulness again with the Oval Office embrace.
But seven months after the hug, with few signs of the progress that he and others had pushed for, Gutierrez was feeling desperate. So on a steaming July day, the congressman returned to the White House — as a protester once more. He was arrested with other advocates as they sat beneath a banner reading, “One Million Deportations Under President Obama.”