Why Is President Obama Talking About Immigration Now?

When the Obama administration announced earlier this week that the president would be delivering an address on immigration reform at American University on Thursday, reporters asked each other, “Why?” There was a time, about two months ago, when it appeared that the controversial immigration law in Arizona could spark a national response to managing the flow of undocumented residents. But after dipping a toe in the water and realizing that it was, in fact, far too cold to actually make substantive progress, Democrats scrapped the plan, saying they would try to take it up later, maybe next year.

Next year, of course, isn’t good enough for the 66 percent of Hispanics and other minority groups that voted for Obama in 2008, and helped elect him. Aside from expanding health-care accessibility, the perception is that the president hasn’t done that much for these groups, and they’re getting impatient. Immigration reform had been stewing for years since George W. Bush couldn’t build consensus among partisans in Congress. Early last month, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that only 39 percent of the country approves of Obama’s handling of immigration issues.

But as much as Obama would like to appease a core constituency, passing some sort of immigration reform may be out of his hands—and the White House is showing signs that it knows that.

Obama, ever the speech giver, spoke for 30 minutes Thursday without really saying much, mostly because there’s not much to say. The anger and controversy surrounding the Arizona immigration law signals that a compromise is far off. And 60 votes may well be a fairy tale.

In the meantime, Obama has two major options. One is to sit and do nothing—to just “kick the can down the road,” as he said in his remarks—which would hardly appease anyone. But the second is to just keep talking about doing something, without actually doing something. Obama’s speech was certainly designed to turn up the heat on Republicans, who he accused of stalling for political reasons. Yet the intent was also to nod at his angry and impatient interest groups as if to say, “Hey guys, I’m trying,” since trying is probably the best he can do at this point.

Still, the White House isn’t willing to take the blame for being unable to jumpstart a bill. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs started off his Thursday briefing slamming Republicans for not being willing to participate in discussions. “When there’s a will on the Republican side of the aisle, there will be a way to move forward.”