As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to "put comprehensive immigration reform back on the nation's agenda during my first year in office." After victory in 2008, he had the clout to do so: sky-high approval ratings, 257 Democrats in the House and, for a while, a filibuster-proof majority of 60 Democrats in the Senate.
And yet, immediately after being sworn in, Obama began to send subtle signals that immigration reform wasn't a top priority. Reform was a "serious concern," Obama told a group of regional reporters in March 2009, but not an urgent one. "We've started to talk to all the parties involved and both parties here in Washington about the prospects of taking legislative steps," Obama said. "But obviously we've got a lot on our plate right now."
Immigration activists pressed hard for Obama to act; after all, he had promised. As 2009 unfolded, Obama encouraged the activists to believe he was committed to introducing a comprehensive reform bill. After a White House meeting, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, (D, Illinois) told reporters Obama had promised a bill "in the very near future."
The next month, April 2009, the White House sent out word Obama was preparing to move. "Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May," the New York Times reported, "and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall."
Throughout June, Obama and top Democrats promised action. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said comprehensive immigration reform "is going to happen this session, but I want it this year, if at all possible." Obama told a Hispanic group he was "committed" to passing reform. After meeting with congressional leaders, he declared they all "want to actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now."
As the summer of 2009 went on, though, the talk slowed down as work on health care reform consumed the administration. Immigration fell out of the first tier, if it had ever really been there. By August, Obama put reform at the bottom of a long list.
"I've got a lot on my plate," he said, "and it's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don't all just crash at the same time. And what we've said is in the fall when we come back, we're going to complete health care reform. We still have to act on energy legislation that has passed the House ... We still have financial regulatory reform that has to get done ... That's a pretty big stack of bills."
Immigration reform would have to wait for 2010. And then 2011. And then 2012. And then 2013. And now 2014.
During that time, the political dynamics of immigration reform changed repeatedly. Obama now faces entrenched Republican opposition to comprehensive reform. And that has led to the question of why the president didn't act when he had the chance. Wasn't the immigration system just as "broken" then as Obama says it is now? The answer is, in Obama's world, there was always something more important than immigration reform. And no, it wasn't because the economic crisis was so severe that Obama could focus on nothing else; indeed, for him, the crisis year of 2009 was mostly about Obamacare.
During the days when his power was at its peak, Obama pursued higher-priority issues even as he led immigration activists to believe they were up next. Which leads to the conclusion that perhaps immigration reform -- the substance of it, not the politics -- has never been all that important to the president.
Now, there's still something more important: protecting vulnerable Democrats from voter disapproval of unilateral presidential action on immigration.
Obama says he will finally act, after the election, after voters can no longer hold him or his party accountable. But who knows? Maybe something more important will come up yet again.