A few weeks ago, I was accosted by a guy who said, contemptuously, “I know why you still have your job.” I asked him why, stupidly. Turned out, he didn’t really want to tell me–although he insisted he knew–because he said I’d just deny it. But in the midst of his splutter, other facts emerged. I was part of the liberal media establishment, working in clandestine fashion with President Obama. Our secret mission was to stage an ethnic revolution by allowing all sorts of immigrants through the border and getting them to vote. “People like me tell the truth,” the man said, “and people like you call us racists.” An interesting rhetorical ploy, since it did appear by all the evidence that he was one, although I didn’t mention that … because he’d just deny it.
I report this decidedly unpleasant incident because it is pure distillate of the latest stage of anti-Obama paranoia. The first was that the President was not an American and was quite probably a secret Muslim. The second was that he was a socialist, trying to have the government take over everything–like health care–so that money could be transferred to the deadbeats. Now he’s trying to undermine American democracy by having all these furriners fake their way into our voting booths. The real news here, I think, is that immigration–not Obamacare–will be the hottest of buttons in the November elections. According to a recent Gallup poll, immigration is now the No. 1 issue for Republicans. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that only 3% of Republicans and 2% of Democrats thought Obamacare was the biggest problem.
For the first 190 years of U.S. history, opposition to immigration was mostly about religion–Catholicism and Judaism. For the past 50 or so, it’s been mostly about race–Mexicans and other Latinos. Nativists have always existed in both parties, and they’ve gotten particularly noisy over this ugly summer, as terrified Central American refugees flowed toward the border–which is really why the President decided to postpone his plans to expand immigration rights until after the November elections. The fate of several moderate Democrats, in states where aversion to illegal immigrants is fierce, will determine whether the Senate goes Republican. Nativists have won temporary victories in the past, but it has become clear that there are no limits to the basic American principle: the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us. Most academic studies show that immigration is a net plus for the economy (unless there is an illegal deluge, which there hasn’t been, despite the recent refugees). “Give us … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” has been at the heart of the American exception, along with democracy and freedom.
The President has eloquently spoken of this basic principle in the past. With a mom from Kansas and a dad from Kenya, he embodies it. But he has abandoned the high ground and seems a bit panicky now, dodging immigration reform even though he believes in it, thereby offending all sides. There are various explanations, none of them very noble, for Obama’s diminishing ability to convince anyone of anything. I think the problem has been there from the start: he is not a natural politician and, consequently, places too much faith in those who are alleged experts in the art. He buys their discombobulated, amoral strategies. He uses their language: he talks about “optics” when he plays golf instead of spending a vacation day in quiet reflection after an American journalist is beheaded. He sounds cynical. He almost never makes a straight-ahead moral argument. That was true on health care, where he never mentioned the fact that the program was a matter of simple fairness: the poor had medical coverage through Medicaid; the working poor and many self-employed were stuck.
On immigration, he announced his prevarication by telling Chuck Todd, “And I’m being honest now, about the politics of it,” while insisting politics had nothing to do with his delayed action. A working politician should never use the words honest and politics in the same sentence. In this case, the President’s disingenuous claim led to a cascade of rhetorical malarkey. Disappointed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blasted Obama for not going through with his Executive Order even though he and most Republicans thought it was illegal. Why would he do that? Because he thought unilateral action by Obama on immigration would help Republicans in November.
There has always been politics. Some of us love its primal intricacy and elegance. But politics without moral content becomes an exercise in competing cynicisms, with progress an occasional, almost accidental, consequence. And in such an atmosphere you have to wonder why Barack Obama is playing games with one of the core issues that define who we are as a country.
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This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.