clock menu more-arrow no yes

The campaign promise that’s still haunting Obama

The president would rather you didn't mention his immigration promise from 2008.
The president would rather you didn't mention his immigration promise from 2008.
Chris Jackson

On New York magazine's website, Jonathan Chait argues that Obama made four "big" promises for his presidency — economic recovery, health-care reform, addressing climate change, and education reform — and that he's now officially kept all those promises.

According to Chait, the administration crossed the finish line a week ago by proposing new power-plant regulations that count as significant action on climate change. (The body of the article clarifies that these are promises for "domestic policy," but the headline doesn't.)

But there's at least one big promise that Chait doesn't count, but plenty of voters (who Obama's party needs in November's midterm elections) do: immigration reform.

Chait defines Obama's "big promises" according to two lines in his first speech as president, during his inauguration in 2009. But those lines don't even talk about promises — they talk about challenges:

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

Chait adds, parenthetically, that immigration reform ("the only possible remaining area for significant domestic reform") wasn't mentioned in the 2009 inaugural address, "to the justifiable dismay of immigration advocates."

But Obama had already promised immigration reform, on the campaign trail, to Latino voters — in no uncertain terms.

Latinos still use La Promesa de Obama to refer to Obama's promise during the 2008 campaign to make immigration reform a "top priority" during the first year of his presidency. In July 2008, Obama gave a speech at the annual convention for the National Council of La Raza — the most influential Latino organization in Washington. Here's what he said:

I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive (immigration)  reform when it becomes politically unpopular. And that's the commitment I'm making to you. I marched with you in the streets of Chicago. I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform.

And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President -- not just because we need to secure our borders and get control of who comes into our country. And not just because we have to crack down on employers abusing undocumented immigrants. But because we have to finally bring those 12 million people out of the shadows.

That's a pretty explicit "commitment." But it's actually building on an interview Obama gave several weeks earlier, to Univision's Jorge Ramos, the most influential man in Spanish-language news. Here's what Obama said on May 28, 2008:

I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days. But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I'm promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.

Neither of those happened. Obama's first year was taken up with the economic stimulus and health-care reform. The House of Representatives passed a climate-change bill in 2009, but nothing to address immigration — and if the president had any priorities other than what was being considered in Congress, he didn't do much to make that known.

Senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham spent Obama's first year working on an immigration bill — but got no further than an op-ed summarizing their plan in March 2010. Then, the Affordable Care Act passed and Graham started to back away, saying the ACA had "poisoned the well" on immigration reform. As Senate Democrats started to move toward embracing immigration reform as a priority, Graham continued to back off, until it was clear by the end of April that bipartisan immigration reform wasn't going to happen. All of this happened without action from the Obama administration, save a speech or two.

Ultimately, the immigration bill that was supposed to be the keystone of the president's strategy wasn't introduced until September 30, 2010 — and by that point it was basically an afterthought.

To understand why immigration activists are so upset about Obama's deportation record — and why there's concern that it could depress Latino voter turnout — it's important to understand that in their eyes, Obama absolutely made a promise on immigration reform. And that promise, to them, was one he broke.