Obama’s Texas Two-Step

Instead of focusing on the plight of children massed at the border, the president seems more intent on shifting blame and scoring political points against the GOP.

National Journal
James Oliphant
July 9, 2014, 6:58 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama was 500 miles from the Mex­ic­an bor­der when he spoke about the child-mi­grant crisis Wed­nes­day even­ing, but he seemed to be even farther away than that.

Stand­ing be­fore an oddly non­des­cript back­ground in Dal­las (really, the pres­id­ent could have been any­where), Obama kept his dis­tance — from the bor­der, from the thou­sands of refugee chil­dren in bur­eau­crat­ic limbo there, and from a Con­gress, he told the pub­lic, that bears the brunt of the re­spons­ib­il­ity for solv­ing the prob­lem.

It was a pres­id­ent who, while bit­terly com­plain­ing about the par­tis­an di­vide in Wash­ing­ton, seemed more boxed in by it than ever, tak­ing a de­cidedly bin­ary ap­proach to what his own White House has labeled a hu­man­it­ari­an crisis of epic di­men­sion. In fact, for a pres­id­ent some­times de­rided by con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics for pla­cing too much im­port­ance on em­pathy, Obama spent little time dwell­ing on the huddled masses at the bor­der, most of whom, he as­sured, would soon be sent pack­ing.

Per­haps the pres­id­ent felt so hemmed in by the stark lines of the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate that he couldn’t loc­ate a less com­bat­ive, more com­pas­sion­ate middle ground. Im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates have as­ser­ted that the flow of chil­dren and moth­ers from Cent­ral Amer­ica has its roots in vi­ol­ence there and not in U.S. im­mig­ra­tion policy — and that many claims for asylum should be taken ser­i­ously. Obama didn’t try to make that case to the pub­lic, in­stead need­ling House Re­pub­lic­ans for fail­ing to act on an im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill that has a strong bor­der-se­cur­ity com­pon­ent, a bill he said, would have put more boots on the ground and “put us in a stronger po­s­i­tion to deal with this surge and, in fact, pre­vent it.”

At the same time, the pres­id­ent de­fen­ded his re­cord, dis­miss­ing the no­tion that his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion might have con­trib­uted to the prob­lem, while seem­ing to sug­gest that his ad­min­is­tra­tion could not be looked to for a solu­tion. Rather, it was more talk about his lim­its. At one point, he acidly re­ferred to a law­suit chal­len­ging his ex­ec­ut­ive power threatened by House Speak­er John Boehner as if to say, “OK, you guys take care of it, then.”

All of it was an ex­er­cise in Wash­ing­ton’s fa­vor­ite activ­ity: pree­mpt­ive blame as­sign­ment. This was the White House lay­ing a found­a­tion in the event the pres­id­ent’s $3.7 bil­lion emer­gency budget re­quest is re­jec­ted on the Hill. Re­pub­lic­ans may seek some policy con­ces­sions in ex­change for ap­prov­al, but Obama did not seem par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in play­ing ball. “Con­gress has the ca­pa­city to work with all parties con­cerned to dir­ectly ad­dress the situ­ation,” Obama said. “The sup­ple­ment­al [re­quest] of­fers them the ca­pa­city to vote im­me­di­ately to get it done.”

If the bill fails, he said, it will be be­cause of “polit­ics.”

“Are folks more in­ter­ested in polit­ics, or are they more in­ter­ested in solv­ing the prob­lem?” Obama said. “If they’re in­ter­ested in solv­ing the prob­lem, then this can be solved. If the pref­er­ence is for polit­ics, then it won’t be solved.”

None of this, of course, is new. Since the Re­pub­lic­an takeover of the House in 2011, this has been SOP for this POTUS. Obama sees it as an in­tract­able situ­ation, one he seems resigned to, but also one that af­fords him the op­por­tun­ity to sug­gest that the out­come of everything he at­tempts is pre­or­dained. “If I sponsored a bill de­clar­ing apple pie Amer­ic­an, it might fall vic­tim to par­tis­an polit­ics,” he said in re­sponse to re­port­er’s ques­tion. “I get that.”

The pres­id­ent’s state­ment came on a trip while he’s fully en­gaged in par­tis­an polit­ics, head­lining Demo­crat­ic fun­draisers in Dal­las and Aus­tin — and he again res­isted calls to go down­state and see the bor­der crisis for him­self. “This isn’t theat­er. This is a prob­lem,” he said. “I’m not in­ter­ested in photo-ops.”

It was a tough line, a Clint East­wood line (ig­nor­ing, for the mo­ment, that at these fun­draisers, there are in­ev­it­ably photo-ops). Obama has con­sist­ently felt the need to sound strong on im­mig­ra­tion, lest he give ground to his Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics. But even if the pres­id­ent stays away from the bor­der, those chil­dren and their fates will be his re­spons­ib­il­ity. They’ve fled one hos­tile en­vir­on­ment and, it seems, found their way to an­oth­er.

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