President Barack Obama will step up his efforts to drive an immigration bill through the U.S. House by using a tool that has failed him on issues from gun control to budget cuts -- the bully pulpit.
The White House realizes the legislation is in danger and a public campaign is the last option at the president’s disposal, said a former Obama adviser, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly about administration strategy.
“He’s had trouble when he’s done this,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “It didn’t work on health care. The budget ended up with sequestration,” he said, referring to the automatic federal spending cuts that Obama unsuccessfully tried to halt.
The president’s prospects for a second-term legislative legacy are at stake in the battle over immigration, with his gun-control push defeated, Republicans opposed to action on climate change, and partisan gridlock on the budget. While the Senate passed immigration legislation last month with a 68-vote majority, House Republicans are opposed to key provisions.
The president’s advisers recognize that if, at some point, the legislation is headed for failure they must first mount an all-out public campaign that demonstrates a commitment to an immigration overhaul to supporters, including Hispanic and Asian voters, said the former White House official.
Obama, who mostly stayed in the background during debate on the Senate bill, is considering visiting electoral battlegrounds with important Hispanic constituencies such as Nevada, Colorado or Florida to press for action in the Republican-run House, administration officials said.
Plans are already under way to send Cabinet members around the country and for Obama to rally support through interviews with Spanish-language media. The administration officials asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.
Sensitive to the prospect that a more prominent role by the Democratic president will antagonize Republicans determined to deny him a victory, the White House will calibrate the campaign, based on the bill’s momentum in the House, said one administration official. Obama is ready to increase his efforts if prospects for a bill are flagging or to scale them back if the legislation is on track, the official said.
“It’s a tricky balance,” said Patrick Griffin, who was chief lobbyist for President Bill Clinton. Obama needs to put pressure on opposition party leaders and promote an expectation among voters that “something should get done and will get done” while not fueling resistance from party members hostile to him, he said.
Speaker John Boehner yesterday told a meeting of House Republicans that the party would be “in a much weaker position if we didn’t act,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said after the session. “He clearly wants to act, thinks something needs to get done,” Cole said.
Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said today on CNBC that after the Senate voted on its bill, he put the odds for House passage of legislation at “something like 70 percent. Now I would say it’s 50-50.”
While “a good number” of House Republicans favor the idea of a comprehensive overhaul, Van Hollen said, “the politics in their district are driving them to fear voting for it” because of concern they will be “attacked by someone on the Tea Party right.”
Obama met yesterday at the White House with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Yet for the moment, the administration’s main effort will focus on pressing businesses, evangelical leaders and law-enforcement groups to lobby for a bill, officials said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has backed an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship as has Ralph Reed, who helped build the Christian Coalition.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met last week with leaders of seven business trade associations such as the National Retail Federation, the Financial Services Forum and the American Bankers Association, participants said. Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Gene Sperling, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, were scheduled to hold a conference call with business leaders today on the legislation.
At a time of partisan polarization, Obama’s ability to use persuasion to shift House lawmakers’ votes only goes so far.
Republican members of Congress have little reason to fear him. While Obama was re-elected by 4 percentage points, he won in only 17 of the 234 House districts represented by Republican lawmakers. Most of those incumbents are more vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right than to a Democratic opponent.
What’s more, a Quinnipiac University survey released today shows voters disapprove of Obama’s handling of immigration by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin.
“There are limits to the powers of the bully pulpit on every issue,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday. “This is a methodical effort using all the tools available to us and to him.”
The media environment is much more fractured than in the past, and the president’s statements are more apt to be filtered through an ideological point of view in such outlets as Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Zelizer said.
Even Obama’s signature legislative achievement, his health-care law, passed in 2010 without a single Republican vote.
Whenever Obama has succeeded in applying pressure to force House Republicans to reverse course, he has come to the fight with significant advantages.
In persuading them to drop resistance to relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, he was joined by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and other prominent Republicans in the New York area, an important fundraising base for the party.
In pushing Republicans to permit higher tax rates on the wealthy at the end of last year, Obama had just won re-election in a campaign fought on that issue.
The White House believes its best chance of winning House passage of immigration legislation is by leaning on national Republican leaders, who want to win back the White House and avoid further alienating Hispanic and Asian voters, an administration official said.
The party’s presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote and 26 percent of Asians in 2012 while former President George W. Bush had 44 percent support from both groups in his 2004 re-election victory. Bush, who failed to overhaul immigration laws in his second term, said yesterday at a naturalization ceremony at his presidential center in Dallas that, “I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate.”
The Obama team is counting on national figures to persuade Boehner to allow a vote on a bill. Boehner has said he’ll only permit consideration of legislation that has the backing of a majority of Republicans.
Obama can raise the visibility of the immigration issue by mounting a campaign of public appearances, said George C. Edwards III, a political science professor with a joint appointment at Texas A&M University and Oxford University. “If Republican leaders’ focus is more broadly national and the next presidential election, then it’s hard to ignore,” Edwards said.
Obama will primarily make the case for immigration reform in economic terms, in keeping with a White House decision to focus its message on jobs, said an administration official. Americans consistently rate the economy as their top concern.
The administration yesterday issued a report arguing that enactment of the Senate-passed bill would strengthen the economy. The report cited a Congressional Budget Office analysis that concluded the legislation would cut the federal deficit by $175 billion over the next decade and expand gross domestic product by 3.3 percent over the period.
The White House posted an animated video on its YouTube channel today giving administration’s “economic case for immigration reform.”
Rank-and-file Republican members of Congress warned that an open campaign by Obama on behalf of immigration legislation wouldn’t be effective.
“The president is not going to pressure House Republicans,” said Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican.
Some advocates of immigration legislation said they welcomed more vocal support from Obama. Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration-advocacy group, said Obama needs to be more aggressive.
“The House is only going to move on this productively, constructively, if there’s pressure from the outside,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Dorning in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.