National Voices

Wednesday, Aug 29 2012 11:00 PM

Barack Obama, the agent of non-change

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    Esther Cepeda

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By ESTHER CEPEDA

What might an independent voter -- one who, like most of us, is weary of dirty political attacks and half-truths from both presidential campaigns -- take away from Politico White House beat reporter Glenn Thrush's new e-book, "Obama's Last Stand"?

As skeptics complain that they think Republican candidate Mitt Romney is a phony, a fair-minded critic could, after reading this book, reasonably wonder the same about President Obama.

This book, the latest to illustrate Obama's failed promise to bring about real change during his first term in office, is a natural follow-up to recent books detailing the dysfunction inside the White House, how scattered, uninspiring and underachieving Obama's presidency has been, and calling out the president for not living up to his promises on international diplomacy and human rights.

Thrush's addition to this canon of disappointment paints the president as a calculating politician who, like almost any other, will compromise the principles he campaigned on to get re-elected. We read about how Obama's campaign staffers -- and some of his most ardent supporters -- have a marked deficiency of enthusiasm compared to the magical 2008 campaign. This is due in no small part to what each of the aforementioned books describes as a lack of vision for America's future, combined with the White House's dogged determination to find a narrative that will pinch-hit in its absence.

Along the way we learn the backstory about how Obama's high-minded opposition to political action committees disintegrated once Romney-boosting PACs started raking in the bucks, and how Vice President Joe Biden forced Obama's hand on supporting gay marriage even though he'd been dodging his own beliefs in order to avoid a backlash in key battleground states. No worries, though, Obama managed to spin his "evolution" in a way that actually energized the party base and under-30 voters for whom this issue was especially important.

He similarly spun a popularity lift from Latino voters on his deferred action order for unauthorized immigrant youth, even after years of presiding over unprecedented deportations and breaking his promise to broker substantive immigration reforms.

According to Thrush, once Obama saw Florida Sen. Marco Rubio -- at the time, a presumed vice presidential contender -- gaining in stature on the topic of a DREAM Act-like compromise, he took a chance on turning off white independents who feel immigrants represent a threat to their job security in order to court Hispanic voters.

The real sting -- for those Latinos who believe that it is the Democrats who respect and value them -- was that Obama had not initially wanted to turn to an executive order to offer the deferral action. Thrush says that Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, spent months quietly pressuring Senate Democrats to pass a bill exempting from deportation young adults currently residing here illegally, if they had been under 16 when their parents brought them here, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the votes weren't there. Issue an executive order.

It took until late May for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to abruptly reverse her long-standing opposition to an executive order -- on constitutional grounds -- and clear the way for approximately 800,000 young immigrants to avoid deportation. But what happened next is what should give readers pause.

According to Thrush, when the Supreme Court ruled that parts of Arizona's reviled "papers, please" law violated the federal government's responsibility to regulate international borders but upheld the right of the state to ask for proof of legal residency, the administration and campaign staffers were not primarily, as Obama's official statement said, "concerned" about law enforcement's requirement to check the status of those merely suspected of being here illegally. Obama-ites were, in fact, elated.

"It was, in the eyes of top Democrats I interviewed, a win-win politically," Thrush writes. "Vindicating the administration's opposition to the law while keeping in place its stop-and-search centerpiece -- a massive GOP insult to legal, voting Latinos caught in the dragnet."

Yet another example of unpalatable Obama political expediency. Which brings me back to my take-away from this book: Don't let anyone convince you that you shouldn't dislike or distrust Romney, but don't put Obama on a pillar of trustworthiness, either.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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