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.