Lowered Expectations Win for Obama

His "Don't ask, don't tell" gambit may garner votes. Can his immigration strategy sway Latinos?

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In last week's Time magazine -- featuring its first Spanish-language headline: "Yo Decido." (or, "I decide") -- Univision's Jorge Ramos penned a widely circulated essay titled, "Why Neither Party Speaks Our Language Yet" and says that in the 2012 election, "Latino voters are in search of a candidate, but so far there is none to be found."

He argues that Republicans have deployed so much anti-immigrant rhetoric that they're "making an extraordinary effort to lose the Hispanic vote." But Ramos also believes that President Barack Obama doesn't fare any better with Latinos after he "broke a key campaign promise" by failing to enact omnibus immigration reform in his first term. Ramos' theory seems to be that despite backing Obama in 2008 with 67 percent of their vote, Latinos have nothing to show for it.

But he's wrong.

Obama appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- a historic first -- to the Supreme Court. Against congressional opposition, he got an up-or-down vote -- albeit unsuccessful -- on the DREAM Act. And as Ramos points out, Latinos put stock in traditional family values -- and Obama is nothing if not a traditional family man.

Obama hasn't dealt with immigration, but that doesn't mean he's abandoned the issue. He still doesn't have a reform plan in place, but unlike his predecessor, he also hasn't flushed immigration reform down the drain.

President Obama usually succeeds strategically when he lowers expectations and works behind the scenes. Like in 2008, when he promised, "We will kill bin Laden," but then gave no sign that he was actively pursuing the al-Qaida leader -- until he actually caught him. Or the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" -- when the president's gay and lesbian constituency thought that progress on a key issue was stalled -- until it moved forward all at once.

It's a case study that shows how the political stalemate on immigration reform could eventually be broken. 

By contrast, in his fight over health care reform, the president waged a messy, public battle with congressional Republicans and skeptics in his own party for nine straight months and wound up with a legislative package that left supporters dissatisfied, opponents in a permanent state of attack and most of the public thoroughly confused.

Had he attempted to force immigration reform through Congress at that same time, it could have easily failed -- as it did when President George W. Bush touted it -- or suffered the same fate as Obamacare, passing on a narrow party-line vote and then pitting undocumented immigrants against the anger of a rising Tea Party.

It's a cautionary tale for voters, Latino or otherwise, who want immigration reform to succeed.