After taking hit in the polls, Obama pivots back to immigration reform

The White House hopes to bolster President Obama’s political standing by shifting attention from the bruising budget battles of the last month to immigration reform and gun control.

Democrats welcome the pivot after watching Obama’s standing in polls fall amid fights with Congress over the budget and the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.

They see immigration and gun reform as a better playing field for Obama that could provide political wins for the president.

“What the public wants to see right now is him achieving things, leading,” said Tad Devine, a former strategist to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryWhat would a Hillary Clinton presidency look like? 5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin US pledges to do all it can to fight 'grave threat' of nuclear North Korea MORE and former Vice President Gore. “For him, there's real opportunity on all these fronts, and… realistically in the next six months, he can have progress he can bring back to the American people.”

On gun control, Obama will travel the country to bolster the case for strengthening background checks on gun purchases. Obama is expected to play an active role in the looming Senate fight over what Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerImmigration was barely covered in the debates GOP leaders advise members to proceed with caution on Trump Senate Dems demand answers from Wells Fargo over treatment of military MORE (D-N.Y.) has described as the “sweet spot” of legislation.

A poll released Friday from Quinnipiac University shows that 88 percent of respondents support an expansion of background checks on new weapons purchases. Other provisions banning straw sales and improving gun research programs and school security funding garner similarly commanding poll advantages.

"There actually is a lot of strong support for the proposals that the president has put forward, whether it's universal background checks, whether it is, you know, outlawing gun trafficking or straw purchasers," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "There's even some support out there in the public for the assault weapons ban."

Yet, the assault weapons ban doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate, and neither does background checks — unless a bipartisan deal is reached.

Immigration is a better issue for the president, partly because a growing number of Republicans want to pass a bill in the 113th Congress.

While Republicans in Congress had little reason to negotiate with Obama on preventing the sequester, they do have reason to offer concessions on immigration.

"Immigration reform in particular is something clearly that Latinos and the American public as a whole signaled they wanted in the last election, and Republicans ought to get on the right side of that issue," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. "It doesn't seem like complicated math, and Republicans are basically deciding, do they want to be a House-based party, or do they want to be a national party that competes for the presidency and competes for the control of the Senate?"

Moreover, immigration reform — which failed in the George W. Bush administration — would be Obama's most significant legislative achievement behind healthcare reform. 

“If the administration were able to get an immigration bill that looked anything like comprehensive immigration reform after President Bush had failed on it, President Clinton had failed on it, every president back to Reagan had failed, it would be a big deal,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Democrats are worried that Obama hasn't had a lot of signing ceremonies in 2013 as unresolved budget battles have hit the president's approval ratings. Obama's healthy post-election advantage on the economy has dwindled into a virtual tie with congressional Republicans. Voters equally blame Obama and the GOP for the sequester, which is expected to hit in full force in the coming weeks.

“It goes back to a sense in Washington that things aren't getting done,” Devine said. “No matter whose fault that is, when you're president, the buck stops here.”

Obama faces a delicate high-wire act on guns and immigration: Claim too much ownership for an issue, and swing-state Republicans who had been considering working with the White House might buck; Sit too far back, and risk losing steam on policy initiatives — or allowing Republicans to take credit.

“In both of those policy areas, the president is involving himself carefully, allowing what appears to be some momentum in Congress to manage the issues,” Jillson said. “The president's involvement is modest, if not behind the scenes, because there is still enough post-election bad blood among the House GOP that direct presidential involvement drives away support.”