President seeking to balance bully pulpit with negotiations in immigration debate

Speaking in Las Vegas, President Obama laid out his plan for immigration reform, which includes smarter enforcement, a clearer path to citizenship and improvements in the legal system. (The Washington Post)

When President Obama came here in October 2011, he was embarking on a strategy that would endure through the presidential campaign and beyond: publicly pressure Congress to act, and promise to move unilaterally if it refused.

“We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job,” he said here, as lawmakers in Washington sat on his plan to boost the economy. “Where they won’t act, I will.”

His return to Las Vegas on Tuesday — the first trip outside Washington in his second term — was an early test of his leadership style for the next four years. Obama called for a broad overhaul of immigration laws, using the power of the bully pulpit to urge Americans and lawmakers to get behind his vision.

But he also tried out a more conciliatory and less adversarial approach to Congress than he employed during the campaign and during the recent debate over the “fiscal cliff” and debt limit. While pressing forward with his vision, Obama doesn’t want to upset efforts already underway in Congress to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

At a speech at a public school here, Obama praised a bipartisan blueprint to address immigration reforms released Monday in the Senate.

In a speech in Las Vegas, President Obama described guidelines for immigration reform a day after a group of senators made their own proposal. White House correspondent David Nakamura discusses the timing of the announcements and the prospects for a deal. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

“We need Congress to act on a comprehensive approach that finally deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in this country right now,” Obama said.

But he also went beyond that plan and differed with it in several ways.

“The good news is that — for the first time in many years — Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together. Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution. And yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years. At this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon. And that’s very encouraging.”

Whereas the Senate plan, for instance, conditioned a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants on additional measures to strengthen border security, Obama did not make any such linkage. Obama pointed out that the administration has already made substantial progress in securing the border. The White House also released a fact sheet Wednesday that said the administration wants same-sex couples to be treated the same as heterosexual ones under immigration law.

But the administration will not release legislation, as previously considered, out of concern that doing so could disturb the process already underway in Congress. Obama and his aides have long worried that by simply adopting a position, the president can turn Republicans against a proposal they otherwise might support.

“There is a consensus developing in the United States on the need to do this,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One en route to Las Vegas. “And you’ve heard him speak frequently about it since the election and his commitment to move quickly to try to enact comprehensive immigration reform. That requires partners in Congress. ”

The new strategy reflects the changing politics of immigration in America. After years of taking a hard-line against opening a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the GOP, in part driven by substantial losses among Hispanics in 2012, is more open to such a proposal.

If Obama is able to sign into law an immigration bill that largely resembles the principles he outlined Tuesday, it will be a victory for his pragmatic side. But if he appears to be compromising too much to get congressional support, he could face a backlash among his supporters on the left and in the immigration community.

Obama often has sought to strike a balance between the competing demands of pragmatism and aspiration, deciding when to fight publicly for his ideal vision of policy and whether to pass off much of the burden to Congress.

His pursuit of health-care reform in his first term vacillated between these two poles. Obama embarked on a public push to expand health care to almost all Americans, then turned the work over to the Senate. He supported a public insurance plan for most Americans, then opted for an individual mandate that would be less disruptive to the private insurance business.

After Republicans seized the House in November 2010, Obama turned deeply pragmatic. When his deficit reduction commission released a plan to stabilize government borrowing, he declined to support it or release his own version for months, worried that doing so would instantly turn the GOP against it.

Even when he wanted to push publicly for ideas to bolster the economy, he held back, locked in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Republicans over the federal debt.

The pragmatic nature of those negotiations reached its apogee in the summer of 2011. Obama felt burned when Republicans did not agree to what he considered a very generous deficit reduction offer.

After that experience, he turned to publicly pressuring Congress and lambasting Republicans, making a speech to a joint session of Congress and making public appeals in Nevada and other key states. Obama continued with the strategy through the campaign and into the “fiscal cliff” and debt limit debate, using the bully pulpit to defy congressional Republicans and warn that he would hold them accountable.

On Wednesday, he continued his campaign to sway public opnion, but he combined that with praise for the efforts of Congress. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-New York), the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration, summed up the latest twist in Obama’s approach. Obama “is using the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention on the urgency of immigration reform and set goals for action on this issue,” Schumer said in a statement. “But he is also giving lawmakers on both sides the space to form a bipartisan coalition.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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