I'm sorry, can you say that again?

Photographer: Jim Bourg/Pool/Getty Images

Obama's Immigration Speech Acrobatics

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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There's a perfect word to describe President Barack Obama's speech tonight, and that word is "blatherskite." He was supposed to be explaining his actions to regularize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants; what he delivered was a festival of glorious nonsense.

It is not fair, he said, that some people are living here illegally while others came here the right way (which is apparently why we need to regularize the status of the line jumpers). "It’s been this way for decades. And for decades, we haven’t done much about it," he said (except for the massive 1986 amnesty, of course). "Overall, the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts," he said, as if the number of people trying to cross our border illegally was something we actually had a way to count accurately.

Immigration

Then he announced that this was not amnesty. And fair enough -- there's no path to citizenship or permanent residency. But then he explained that real amnesty was not either of those things; real amnesty was ... what we have now. Which is apparently much more amnesty-like than offering people a legal chance to stay and, presumably, a work permit. Meanwhile, knocking off the penalties for coming here illegally is actually what the president calls "accountability."  

As an act of rare semantic derring-do, this was a towering achievement. As a political speech, I don't think it was very effective. It puts one in mind of the debate in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which ends when one side manages to prove that black is white -- and gets themselves killed at the next pedestrian crosswalk.

To be honest, it's not clear to me that the president was trying to be persuasive. He seemed, rather, to be triple-dog-daring Republicans to jump off the bridge with him, and if history is any guide, they will probably oblige. But there's a real risk that Democrats will come to regret having the president jump first.

"Let’s be honest," he said, almost in exasperation. "Tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you." Now, as a practical matter, this may be correct. Nonetheless, announcing that it's absurd to expect you to enforce the law, so you're not going to bother to try, might sort of rub voters the wrong way.

Of course, that depends on whether they notice the speech. And while Univision interrupted the Latin Grammies to carry it, the major English networks didn't ... which is, I'm sure, exactly what the administration wanted. The ideal situation for them is that Latinos celebrate all the way to the voting booth in 2016, Republicans freak out and do something rash, and the rest of America talks about the new episode of "Two and a Half Men" rather than trying to parse the president's strange remarks.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net