"I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term," President Obama recently told Enrique Acevedo, an anchor at the Spanish language television network Univision. Obama was talking about comprehensive immigration reform, which would regularize the status of more than ten million people living in this nation illegally.
On the same subject, four years ago, then-Senator Obama told the League of United Latin American Citizens: "We need to do it by the end of my first term as President of the United States of America. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as president."
This earlier promise, of course, was never honored. And voters who care about this issue would do well to note how easy it would have been for Obama to keep it, how little he did to keep it and how impossible it will be to pass any immigration reform bill in a second Obama term.
Between July 2009 (when Al Franken, D-Minn., was sworn into the Senate) and February 2010 (the seating of Scott Brown, R-Mass.), Obama enjoyed a strong House majority and 60 Democrats in the 100-member Senate. Throughout the 111th Congress, there were at least five and as many as eight Republican senators, including Brown, who might have broken from the "anti-amnesty" orthodoxy on comprehensive immigration reform, if Obama had lifted a finger to press the issue with them or with his own party. He never tried. Some Obama "top priorities" are more "top" than others.
By the time Obama made the Democratic faithful in Congress walk the plank for his health care bill, it was too late. He was gearing up for the 2010 elections, urging Hispanic political leaders to stop complaining about his inaction on immigration and start attacking Republicans instead. Democrats lost the House and six Senate seats, and the window for comprehensive immigration reform closed, possibly for this decade.
If Obama wins a second term, it is hard to see how immigration will come up except as a political football -- the kind he holds out for Hispanic voters to kick, only to pull it away at the last moment. The prospect for large Democratic gains in Congress in 2012 are not promising. And in the 2014 election that follows, the Senate map is an absolute nightmare for Obama's party -- Republicans will have several easy targets and just one blue-state Senate seat to defend. Immigration reform will likely be a nonstarter in the coming Congresses.
Perhaps Hispanic voters -- at least the ones who consider immigration reform important -- will take Obama's promise seriously, and keep playing Charlie Brown the field goal kicker to Obama's Lucy. Then again, perhaps they will look at what happened to Obama's first promise and catch on to the fact that they are being played. As the old Mexican saying goes, a liar is easier to catch than a one-legged man.