When it came to immigration reform, President Obama faced one question tonight: Whether to once again use the bully pulpit to make his case for reform, or tone down his rhetoric and take the issue off center stage while negotiations inside the Republican Party are ongoing.
Before the speech many pundits recommended the latter. They insisted it made no sense for the president to stir up the proverbial hornet’s nest at a time when the prospect of immigration reform – however flawed - seems like a very real possibility inside the Republican Party. Fighting words by the president in the thorny issue might hinder, rather than help, the possibilities of reform.
Seems pretty straightforward. But the question was more complicated. After all, the apparent outline for immigration reform that House Republicans seem to be considering denies the possibility of citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Until recently, a path to citizenship as part of immigration reform was an absolute must for the president. And, with his recent focus on social mobility, to simply consent to what could amount to the formal establishment of a social under-class in the United States seemed almost like a betrayal of Obama's principles. By adopting a much more subdued tone on immigration, the president could be seen as sending a test message to the Republican Party: Your version of immigration reform is more than enough and I won't veto it if it reaches my desk.
So, like has been the case with many other instances in his presidency, Obama faced a stark choice tonight when it came to immigration, either enrage the right or disappoint his own progressive base. In the end, the president chose the middle ground. He made the case for immigration reform. A very, very brief and cautious case. Clearly conscious of ongoing GOP negotiations, Obama used the safest possible argument to try and move immigration reform along: the administration has been trying to use the economic benefits of immigration reform as the cornerstone of its argument for change.
He did not mention border security. He did not talk about the human drama of immigration. Crucially, he did not say a thing about the importance of a path to citizenship. Instead, he chose a safe, brief argument that relates to the economic opportunity narrative that was at the center of the whole speech.
What does this mean for the prospect of immigration reform? It’s good news. It means that the president probably believes Republicans – or moderate Republicans – are indeed trying to pass some sort of immigration reform this year and he decided to stay out of the way so as not to alter a fragile balance. The question now is whether or not his gamble will pay off. It hasn’t in the past.
And of course the big question remains, will the Republican version of immigration reform be worthy of the problem, a real solution for eleven million people, many of which are de facto citizens, tax-paying working citizens of the country? That’s another matter, and the president decided not to get into it tonight. We’ll see if it was the right choice…
A Mexican journalist and author. He's the main anchor for Univision's KMEX in Los Angeles.