My beef with Obama is that, almost always, he has neglected making the moves that would strengthen his Democratic Party's standing with voters who might form a long lasting majority coalition, preferring to run on his "only adult in the room" persona rather than build a popular base of the excluded.
Last week he broke with that pattern; the example should be instructive for people who want the President to act differently.
What did Obama do? He used the powers of the executive to order immigration authorities to lower the priority of deporting undocumented people who came here as children, have gone to school here or served in the military, and who have committed no crime.
The Obama administration announced Thursday that it would suspend deportation proceedings against many illegal immigrants who pose no threat to national security or public safety.(It remains to be seen how this will actually work out in practice: individual immigration agents sometimes seem to make low level decisions about who to deport that look on their face racist; private immigration prisons and contractors profit from throwing out anybody and everybody, as lawsuits by citizens unlawfully deported reveal.)
This policy shift from Obama came after a week of protests by immigration advocates that targeted the President quite personally (the picture shows the crowd outside his re-election headquarters.) The previous week, a leading Latino Congressman from Illinois got himself arrested outside the White House while protesting immigration policies.
So did all this agitation move the President to use his powers to move immigration enforcement in a more sensible direction? Sure, but not in a simple linear way. What years of immigration protest have accomplished is twofold.
- The continuing agitation has successfully encouraged the Latino community to understand that what could seem random events form a pattern of racial and ethnic victimization. It's not just that your law-abiding nephew Jose who attended community college was stopped for an illegal right turn and ended up shipped to Guatemala. Latinos see that there exists a pattern of treating whole communities with suspicion and disrespect and of subjecting individuals to arbitrary deportation. The Obama administration's vigorous immigration enforcement policies mean that one in four Latinos know someone who was recently deported.
- Rising distress about seemingly arbitrary deportations is seriously undermining the President's support among Latino voters. He has lost ten points from his approval rating among Latinos since January. Latino votes are crucial in many potential swing states in 2012, like Nevada and Colorado.
Progressives need to understand that we can move the system -- under some special circumstances. We have maximum leverage during the run up to elections and we need to use it. (If Obama is re-elected, don't expect much from the administration, but of course he'd be preferable to any visible alternative.) And our demands have to show signs of traction among a population that matters to the politician we're trying to influence.
Generalized liberal dissatisfaction with the administration isn't getting much traction with Obama because no political operative believes we'll defect in large numbers to a Perry or a Romney. In fact, we'll probably even work for the Prez's re-election, because we're properly scared shitless of the other guys. Liberal approval of Obama is only down three percent this year, despite the grumbling we hear and contribute to.
An important feature of the victory immigrant advocates have extracted from the administration is that it contributes to the long term health of a coalition (working of necessity if not choice through the Democratic Party) that projects a vision of the country that has not yet come into focus and is scarcely represented among politicians. Obama's disappointing trajectory says that the political numbers crunchers still believe that prioritizing the interests of Wall Street and anxious older whites is the only way to pull out a national majority. This seems just plain weird to those of us who live in a browner, more urban, more imaginative, yet also more in-need-of-government country, but the operatives won in 2008, so for the moment they have credibility.
It's not at all clear to me that Obama can be re-elected in 2012 given the continuing failure of his government to improve the economic prospects of most voters. His re-election is not where I intend to put my energy: there's a House of Representatives that would be much improved by a return to a Speaker Pelosi and that seems a worthy project to struggle for in the electoral arena. But meanwhile, if we have a beef with Obama, this is the time to have influence by getting in his face.