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Obama's fatal flinch on immigration reform

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Air Force One was about seven miles over Appalachia this week when President Obama dropped a bomb on his party.

Senate Democrats had that very day circulated an immigration reform proposal, and the Associated Press, receiving a leaked copy, reported on the "draft legislation."

But as Obama returned to Washington from Illinois Wednesday night, he walked back to the press cabin on the presidential aircraft and, in an impromptu Q&A, essentially declared immigration reform dead. He said "there may not be an appetite" for it.

Obama's retreat -- after encouraging senators only weeks ago to take up immigration reform -- clotheslined Senate Democrats. Since their proposal had already been leaked, they had no choice but to go ahead with the rollout of the plan Obama had just doomed. "I don't know in what context the statement was made last night," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters at Thursday night's rollout.

Well, Mr. Leader, the context is fear. As the Arizona abomination makes clear, there is a desperate need for federal immigration action to stop the country from turning into a nation of vigilantes suspicious of anybody with dark skin. But leaders on both sides have instead run for the hills, called there by the yodels from their respective extremes.

The most tragic case is that of John McCain, who once nobly led the fight for immigration reform but now, cowering in the face of a conservative primary threat, endorses Arizona's racial profiling plan. On the Democratic side, Reid has been in headless-chicken mode. In need of Latino votes in his Senate reelection bid, he promised he would move immediately to pass immigration reform, then reversed himself, then floated the "framework" with no promise of action.

Obama, meanwhile, afraid of breaking his campaign promise to take up immigration legislation during his first year, tried to juggle immigration reform and climate change legislation -- and now he may wind up with neither. The lone Republican supporter of both efforts, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), has for the moment pulled out of both, justifiably feeling that he's been jerked around by Reid's maneuverings and Obama's mixed signals.

The whole episode is a reminder of what works and what doesn't about Obama's management style. When he engages forcefully, as he did in the final month of the health-care debate, the results are good. But when he hesitates and leaves matters to Congress, the results are poor.

After the extended health-care fight kept immigration off the agenda last year, Obama assured immigration groups in March that he would get it done this year. He summoned to the White House Graham and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who had been negotiating in good faith on an immigration proposal.

The two senators, at the president's urging, published an op-ed in The Post on March 19 outlining their plan, and Obama endorsed the idea. Then, in the absence of forceful leadership from the White House, it all fell apart. Obama called five Republican senators to lobby them on the immigration bill (Schumer and Graham told him they couldn't proceed without a second Republican sponsor) but came up empty. Reid, meanwhile, went rogue, proposing without consulting Graham to take up immigration before the climate bill. Graham, piqued, abandoned the Democrats on both pieces of legislation.

The president could have made a major push for reform (always a difficult prospect in an election year), or he could have told immigration advocates they had to wait until 2011 (which would have antagonized a key voting bloc). But instead, he left a vacuum. This may sound familiar to those who watched Obama's handling of another thorny issue -- the "public option" in the health-care debate. He neither made an all-out push (which would have been politically perilous) nor ruled it out (which would have angered liberal groups) -- a stance that resulted in months of disarray in Congress.

The immigration vacillation led to Thursday night's humiliation in the Capitol, where Reid and his colleagues unveiled their dead-on-arrival proposal. They played down the rollout as best they could -- and happened to walk before the cameras at the exact moment that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was announcing his independent run for the Senate. In questioning, Reid admitted that, without Republican help, "we're not going to have a bill on the floor."

The White House, trying to repair the damage, issued a statement calling the plan "a very important step." For those thirsting for strong presidential leadership, it was too little, too late.

danamilbank@washpost.com

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers on Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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