It's deja vu for progressives this week as the Obama administration's latest concession to Republicans on a major issue has gone, once again, unreciprocated.
President Obama discussed immigration reform during his meeting Tuesday with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill; soon after, the White House disclosed its intention to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops to ramp up security on the US-Mexico border.
The $500 million endeavor closely resembles President Bush's similar move in 2006, which amounted to little more than a temporary boost for his "tough-on-immigration" credentials. It's designed, by all indications, as a split-the-difference political compromise to court GOP support for comprehensive immigration reform.
But, unsurprisingly, it isn't working. Just like it didn't work when the president agreed to give up the public option in search of Republican votes for health care reform, or when he championed offshore drilling to win their blessings for energy legislation. The administration has again made a policy concession that has failed to sway its opponents and succeeded in irritating its allies.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose suggestion Obama's move was based on, stopped short of lauding his 2008 rival, backhandedly saying he "appreciate[s]" the decision while rebuking it as "simply not enough" to address Arizona's border issues. Not a single Republican has agreed to work with Democrats on an immigration overhaul, and this decision hasn't changed that.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice -- a reform ally -- charged that Obama has taken "one step forward and two steps back." "Americans are hungry for real leadership on immigration, but this move by the President serves only to reward those who are standing in the way of real reform," Sharry told me in an email.
Republicans have deemed it politically beneficial to block the Democrats' initiatives, so that's what they'll do. It doesn't matter that, as The Hill reported, Obama told them he'd be "willing to meet them halfway or 75 percent of the way on some of the big issues." Continuing to feed them carrots, despite repeatedly getting stonewalled in return, amplifies the perception that he's negotiating out of weakness and diminishes his capital among the progressive base.
Why, then, does the administration keep following this same approach and expecting a different result? Some would argue it has no other option; that it needs Republican votes to achieve meaningful reform. True, but bending over backwards to accommodate them isn't the only option. Nor is it effective, as attempt after attempt has proven.
The other option would be for the president to vigorously fight back, like FDR did: battling his opponents, reshaping the message on progressive terms, thriving on the support of his base, and challenging the premises of his adversaries. Infusing the debate with the right arguments can pressure Republicans and conservative Democrats to approach the issue more evenhandedly, as well as provide them political cover to vote their conscience.
In the case of immigration, it's about protecting working-class wages (which are depressed by the presence of tens of millions of undocumented immigrants), preserving a deteriorating system that has marked the upward surge of America since its inception. It's about maintaining avenues to continue boosting productivity and prosperity at home. But because it's conservatives who frame the debate, it's become primarily about shady illegals who seek to exploit America for their personal gain. The administration's decision to send troops to the border unwittingly fuels that narrative without addressing the larger issues.
President Obama has the loudest megaphone in the world, and can make major strides in redefining this issue -- and other important ones, like energy -- if he wishes to. As he proved in 2008, he has a remarkable ability to spread his message across the nation and mobilize and incite people to action. Getting elected was the easy part; now's when he needs that clout most. He seems to genuinely believe in fixing the immigration system and despite national support for the Arizona law, Americans also strongly favor comprehensive reform.
But it's clear that Republicans view this as a zero-sum game and won't be persuaded over cocktails. So, as long as the president refuses to challenge conservative orthodoxy, he'll be forced to continue operating within its confines, and his legislative ambitions for the remainder of his presidency will remain prey to whatever talking points Republicans come up with next.
Given all this, the White House's current modus operandi is the least shrewd course of action moving forward.