Has Bush Given Up on Immigration?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 22, 2007; 1:20 PM

The much-anticipated immigration compromise cobbled together last week by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators isn't going anywhere without a lot of aggressive campaigning by the president.

But where is President Bush? Not exactly out on the hustings.

Where's the full-court press? Where's the barnstorming? Where are the famous White House theatrics?

There's something in the immigration compromise for everyone to hate -- and the haters are coming out in full force, dominating (thus far at least) the political discourse. Offsetting them would require Bush to seize his White House bullhorn and give it everything he's got.

Here's the problem, however: Bush's usual political style -- appealing to partisanship and stoking fear -- isn't going to work on this issue. This time, those are the tools of choice of his opponents. What Bush needs to do is appeal to people's reason and conscience -- and then back up his arguments with detailed and informed explanations of why the various tradeoffs reflected in the final agreement were necessary.

Bush often calls himself the educator-in-chief. But what he calls education has too often consisted of repeating simplistic sound bytes over and over. When he's faced with a tough question, he typically doesn't take it in, mull it, and explain his thinking -- he just goes into his mental database of previously-used talking points and picks one out, whether it's responsive or not.

But this bill needs an educator-in-chief. Or else it's dead on arrival.

After the compromise was announced, Bush showed up in front of the cameras for exactly two minutes on Friday afternoon. "I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can," he said. Then he recited a rote radio address for Saturday delivery.

Yesterday, Bush left the topic to spokesman Tony Fratto, who gamely insisted that immigration "is a very high priority for the president." But Fratto couldn't offer up any evidence to support the argument. Consider Bush's public schedule for the coming week:

He has no public events today. Tomorrow, Bush delivers the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy where, he told Reuters yesterday, he intends to make the momentous announcement that "al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq and is public enemy number one for America."

Thursday, Bush's only public event will find him at a photo opportunity related to trade exports. The only glimpse you'll see of him on Friday will be boarding Marine One for a flight to Camp David. And so on.

Has the president lost his enthusiasm for the issue? Is he just biding his time? Or does he realize he doesn't have what it takes to move the ball?

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