As a candidate back in 2008, he told Univision’s Jorge Ramos that “[w]hat I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year [of the presidency] an immigration bill that I strongly support.” Yet, he didn’t lift a finger to keep what Ramos called “la promesa de Obama”–Obama’s promise.
The president went at it again a few days ago in Las Vegas where he outlined his immigration reform plan and basically restated “la promesa,” saying, "I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.”
Yet, the president has done nothing to reach across the aisle to discuss his ideas on how to solve this tough issue. Since the election, in fact, he hasn't called one Republican member to talk about immigration.
When asked in an interview why he hadn’t pro-actively reached out to Republicans, he seemed to indicate that the leadership has to come from Capitol Hill and not from him. “I am happy to meet with anybody, anytime, anywhere to make sure that this thing happens,” he said. “You know, the truth is oftentimes what happens is members of Congress prefer meeting among themselves to build trust between Democrats and Republicans there.”
The question then is: how exactly is he leading and "working on the issue" if he's not talking to anyone on the other side? After all, the most important role of a president is of consensus builder. Presidents outline a vision to resolve specific problems the nation is facing and then work to bring legislators from both parties together. That’s what presidents have always done. A president doesn't lead or govern just by giving speeches.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, and an unquestioned leader on immigration reform, just last month vented his frustration with the president in an interview with The Hill: “Who’s missing from these conversations is the president of the United States. When senators from both parties and members of the House are talking, when you have the Senate majority leader and Speaker Boehner both saying that this is an important priority. Who’s the one missing? The president.”
Nonetheless, as Congressman Gutierrez mentioned, the good news is that congressional Democrats and Republicans early on, right after the elections, began working together on the issue and have achieved considerable progress. Just recently, after weeks of tough negotiations and discussions, a bipartisan group of senators came out with a framework that fully addresses the immigration challenges that our nation is facing, and that strikes an appropriate balance between the legitimate security concerns of the country and our tradition of being a welcoming nation. And a bipartisan working group in the House is expected to announce a similar blueprint in the next few weeks. The only party that has not been involved in these historic and productive conversations has been the White House.
If the president is really being honest about wanting to get immigration reform done, then it would be better for him to quit for now the speaking tour, follow the example of congressional Democrats and Republicans, and work in earnest to expand the bipartisan consensus that has been achieved so far.
Many are concerned, though, that the president will only use immigration for political advantage; that he will call on Americans to mobilize and express their support for immigration reform, but won’t do anything himself to engage congressional leaders in a serious conversation about the issue. If the president chooses this path, he will surely disrupt the great progress that has been achieved so far by both parties in Congress.
Americans elected Barack Obama to be president. They didn’t elect him to be an activist or community organizer. It’s time for him to overcome his social anxiety over talking to politicians who think differently from him, and begin developing the working relationships with individual Republican members that are vital to building the trust and respect needed to reach a deal on such a complex issue as immigration.
Aguilar is the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration.