It’s that time in the president’s second term when he becomes a liability, not an asset. In the case of immigration reform, President Obama has no easy choices ahead.
Given the option, Obama would clearly prefer that the immigration bill would pass, after a year spent bouncing from crisis to crisis. In an attempt to change the debate from the IRS and NSA scandals, the president embarked on a tour of economic speeches. These efforts have fallen flat. He needs another signature legislative achievement.
Senators in the Gang of Eight, the sponsors of the immigration bill, however, have urged him to stay out of the process. The president’s falling approval rating and lack of credibility with congressional Republicans prevent him from being an effective salesman.
To be fair, he has embraced the cheerleader role well, blaming Republicans at every possible moment as part of his ongoing political narrative. Appearing on Spanish-language TV networks, Obama continues to blame Republican obstructionism for the bill’s stagnant position in Congress.
His ultimatum to “get this done before the August recess” went unheeded.
It’s a difficult situation for Obama. He failed to come through on a promise to push immigration reform in his first year, let alone his first term. Univision’s Jorge Ramos was quick to point this out last summer. “You promised that, and a promise is a promise,” he told the president.
Obama will also face backlash from conservatives if he gets too involved. Obama has shown frustration with the existing immigration laws, instead choosing to enforce through executive action only the policies he preferred. He even suspended some deportations, contradicting a claim he made that such actions were irreconcilable with current laws.
As a result, some Republicans are hesitant to pass any immigration law that would allow Obama to simply ignore the portions he doesn’t care for.
“If the president can selectively enforce Obamacare, what’s to say he cannot selectively enforce border security?” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Even if the bill overcomes significant Republican opposition in the House, Obama has established his presence as a distant encourager. This makes it more difficult to take credit for the achievement, especially considering the accusations of broken promises he has faced from the supporters of the bill.
If the bill fails, the president will simply look weaker than ever. Though he will try to score points by blaming Republicans, he'll look like a weak leader. If the bill passes, it’s not really his achievement. Though he would likely attempt to credit himself with its passage, immigration supporters won’t forget his lack of involvement.
For these reasons, the president can't really win on immigration reform. Regardless of what happens, Obama is unlikely to come out ahead.