One after another, they spoke their minds, telling the president what he had done or not done that bothered them. They warned that he was losing credibility with a crucial constituency that had put its faith in him.|
Obama's body stiffened, according to several witnesses, and he started to argue with them. If they wanted meaningful change, he said, they should focus their pressure on the Republicans in Congress who opposed reform, not on him. He was with them but could only do so much. "I am not a king," he said.
I'm a demi-god, you fools!
The Barack Obama who spars with liberals in private seems far different from the man most Americans have come to know for his even-keeled, cerebral presence. He drops the formalities of his position and the familiar rhetoric of his speeches, revealing a president willing to speak personally and candidly to his allies, and also one who can be thin-skinned, irritable, even sarcastic and hectoring if his motives or tactics are questioned. He talks about his own ethnicity, his immigrant roots, his political high wire as a black president with a Muslim middle name -- and then seems surprised when advocates who took deep inspiration from his election nevertheless question his commitment to their causes.
But Mr. President - you promised!
Obama has often lectured activists on what he considered their misguided gripes. Senior aides have called activists to reprimand them for disrespecting the president. White House officials have dismissed the pressure tactics as old-fashioned protest politics -- irrelevant at best, counterproductive at worst.
What got me elected is not gonna get me re-elected!
"He's been out there leading a demonstration and an advocate for those who were feeling left out, so he completely understands their strategy," said Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser. But "a more constructive strategy with him is: How do we get from A to Z, because I'm already there. You don't have to convince me. And every hour [you're protesting or complaining] is an hour you're not working with the president and his team on what are the series of steps we should be taking collectively to move the ball forward."
Get out there and blame the Trunks, you morons!
But it is that attitude from Obama -- the I-know-better-than-you approach to the relationship -- that has ruffled many advocates.
What part of his attitude is new to everyone? He's always been the smartest guy in the room. Just ask him...
"It became clear the president had gone from being an amazing campaigner to somebody governing from the ultimate bubble," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who would attend multiple tense meetings with Obama in addition to being arrested in one action at the White House gates. "The only way for us to break through that bubble was to confront the administration."
The Politics of Confrontation, learned in 20 years of Sunday sermons.
The White House, meanwhile, was still dealing with the sputtering economy, and the next big legislative showdown would be over Wall Street regulation. The rise of the tea party -- and polling numbers showing a growing anti-Washington wave threatening the Democratic majorities in Congress -- added to a desperate sense among activists that their window of opportunity was
slammed shut on their clutching, scrabbling, greedy fingers closing fast.
The meeting had been scheduled to talk about potential paths to passing a comprehensive immigration bill. Activists felt that Obama had not thrown himself fully into the fight. Now, new, even more emotional issues were cropping up, among them a steady rise in the number of deportations. The deportees included students, parents and others who had been in the United States long enough to develop deep roots here.
The president grew visibly frustrated as each successive advocate spoke. He said that the advocates, too, should be pressing Republican lawmakers, that he sympathized with their concerns but that he did not have the legal authority to stop deportations.
I can direct the EPA to ruin the coal industry, but I need to create a Department of Deportations Czar.
Tensions mounted when Obama argued that his administration's policy was to focus on deporting criminals and others deemed to be security threats.
"No, Mr. President, that's not what's happening," interjected Angelica Salas, the head of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. She was seated directly across the table from Obama and leaned toward him as she spoke, her hands trembling and her voice rising. "You're deporting heads of households, mothers and fathers." She said that "young people are sitting in detention centers when they should be sitting in the best universities in the country," according to meeting participants.
Obama looked taken aback by the direct confrontation from Salas and then turned to aides seated against the wall, according to several participants. The aides affirmed that, yes, criminals were the priority.
Turning back to Salas, Obama asked: "What do you want me to do, not enforce the law?" He explained that he could not just ignore laws he didn't like.
Actually, he can't ignore laws you don't like. He can ignore the laws he doesn't like. On the other hand...
Since 2009, the Obama administration had been removing immigrants at a rate of nearly 400,000 a year -- more than under any previous president. Administration officials have said the rise in removals resulted from sharp spending increases on enforcement passed by Congress before Obama took office, while the advocates argued that the administration could take many steps on its own to limit the threat to otherwise law-abiding people.
On the Tuesday after the Senate failed to pass the Dream Act, Obama hosted a few Hispanic lawmakers, including Gutierrez and Menendez, in the Oval Office.
The president conceded that the new Republican-led House would never pass the immigration legislation they all wanted. So the president told the lawmakers that they should all "put our thinking caps on," according to two people familiar with the meeting. "What can we do to work together?" the president asked.
Eventually, the administration would enact a policy of "prosecutorial discretion," calling on immigration officials to focus on deporting serious criminals, repeat border-crossers and others considered security threats rather than students, veterans or seniors.
See, he can ignore the law when he wants to...
The policy, which would later include a case-by-case review of deportation cases, seemed like a potential victory for immigrant advocates. But so far, they have found the results to be disappointing. Only a fraction of cases would be closed under the review, and advocates remain wary.
For Gutierrez, the frustration reflected a profound evolution in emotions. He had felt great hope back in 2006, when he and then-Sen. Obama first discussed the prospects of a presidential campaign and what winning the White House might mean for immigrants. The hope turned to anticipation on Election Day, then frustration through months of protest and tense encounters, and then hopefulness again with the Oval Office embrace.
But seven months after the hug, with few signs of the progress that he and others had pushed for, Gutierrez was feeling desperate. So on a steaming July day, the congressman returned to the White House -- as a protester once more. He was arrested with other advocates as they sat beneath a banner reading, "One Million Deportations Under President Obama."
Another feature the media never covers, brought to you by the Washington Post.