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
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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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