John Feehery: The red line on immigration

John Feehery: The red line on immigration
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In August of 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. ... That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

The world understood that to mean that if Bashar Assad were to use chemical weapons, he would be punished with military action. 

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Instead, when the Assad regime clearly used chemical weapons, the president asked for permission of Congress to do something on Syria, a half-hearted plea that was briefly considered and then rejected.

In January of 2014, the president said at his first Cabinet meeting of the year, “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”

Initially, Obama framed his arguments on behalf of executive action as a way to help spur economic growth. But over the months, expectations have been building in Washington that the president would use whatever authority he had to take decisive (if temporary) action in dealing with immigration enforcement, especially in regards to the DACA program, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. 

The DACA has been controversial. Conservatives believe that the president has taken this action in contradiction of the law, while liberals and immigration activists believe the program has not gone far enough. 

On June 30 of this year, the president explicitly pledged to take executive action on a whole host of immigration issues by the end of the summer, saying he would “fix as much of our immigration system as we can. If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours.”

On Friday, the president announced that he wasn’t going to take any action on immigration until after the midterm elections. He improbably denied that his decision had anything to do with politics to Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press,” but it was pretty clear that his decision had everything to do with politics. 

In fact, it has been widely reported that several Democratic senators practically begged the White House to not act unilaterally on immigration before the elections, because such a move would prove to be so unpopular with an overwhelming majority of voters. 

Like with Syria, the president raised expectations with an unambiguous promise and then dashed those expectations by breaking that promise. 

When the president backed down on Syria, he shattered the trust of our allies in the region, most importantly the Saudis. 

When the president reneged on immigration, he angered a group of voters who helped him win the White House in 2008 and 2012, and who might prove to be a crucial voting bloc in 2014. 

I happen to agree with both decisions by the president. The American people had very little appetite to get into a shooting war with the Syrian regime and, as it turns out, we might very well need to ally with the Assad regime to bring down the bigger threat to our security, ISIS. 

I also agree that the president taking unilateral action on immigration reform would be a tremendous mistake, not only politically but from a policy perspective. A far better decision would be to re-engage with Congress to get a permanent solution to our broken immigration system.

But that doesn’t excuse the president from making too many promises that he simply can’t keep. It reminds me of when he promised that, if you like your healthcare, you can keep it, another poll-tested promise that had little basis in reality. All too often, the president is irresponsible with his statements and raises expectations with our allies and with the American people that can’t be met. 

That’s one big reason why his credibility is shot and why his approval ratings are inching ever lower with every passing month.

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).