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Since the politically disastrous unveiling of the Affordable Care Act’s registration website in October, President Barack Obama has spent the plurality of his recent public appearances speaking in defense of his trademark legislation. As problems with health insurance registration are replaced by claims of Americans being dropped by their plans and losing their doctors, negative media attention to the law seems far from blowing over. Some pundits are already suggesting problems with the ACA are so expansive that Obama may be unable to focus on anything else over the next three years of his presidency if he intends to strengthen it into his legacy issue. But given the renewed efforts of the administration to address the technical issues of the law, more likely to persist than logistical problems with the ACA is political opposition to it. 

Even as Republican legislative options to slow or repeal the ACA dwindle, the Obama Administration has failed to shift the Congressional conversation in any clear, new direction. At a time when the president is politically most in need of a distraction, he has yet to take the reigns on a new legislative issue. However, as several mishaps for the White House coincided over the last couple of weeks — from Obama’s undocumented uncle being allowed to avoid deportation to a pro-immigration heckler interrupting a speech given by the president in San Francisco — Obama appears to be losing the opportunity to spearhead one of his key campaign promises, being led where he once promised to lead. 

Immigration reform has been long invoked by Obama as a must-do item for his presidential tenure, of the same legislative importance as health care and tax reform. After the passage of the ACA, many pundits picked immigration reform as the president’s next major initiative. But with no major steps taken on immigration at the federal level since Obama’s August directive that undocumented parents of minors not be deported, media and activist attention is focusing more and more on administrative inaction. Friday’s damning commentary in The Guardian summed up the extent of deportations under Obama — a rate of 400,000 per year that is set to outpace any administration in history. Despite a recent visit by Obama to a pro-immigration protestor camp outside the White House, the group continues to fast and draw ever more media attention. And with nearly 30 House Democrats recently signing on to a letter calling for an end to deportations, the president is running out of time to take control of what looks like it may be the next significant legislative push in Congress.

In an editorial this week for The Hill’s Congress Blog, conservative commentator Robert Gittelson argued that owning immigration reform is the president’s last change to return to a position of power in the public’s — and Congress’ — eyes. Gittelson suggested that Obama has a number of paths to taking control of the immigration argument — including attaching such reform to the upcoming budget bill — but none of the political focus to do so: “we elect our presidents precisely because we expect them to do the heavy lifting, and this president is no exception to that rule.” But Gittleson, like many other commentators, argues that even this late in the game, the president still has a great amount of leeway in determining just how immigration reform should look. 

In a series of policy recommendations from earlier this year, Tony Payan, Rice University’s Baker Institute Scholar for Immigration and Border Studies, suggested that the president should consider pushing for a series of smaller reforms, rather than a single attempt at comprehensive immigration reform:

“There may not be enough political will to push a comprehensive immigration reform through Congress. Reforms may best be achieved through a piecemeal approach, one that segments different populations and issues. This will allow the administration to tackle each issue individually. A piecemeal approach is also likely to provide hesitant members of Congress the opportunity to take cover from constituents opposed to comprehensive reforms.”

Such a piecemeal approach would have an additional benefit for the administration — avoiding pushback from a Republican Party hoping to avoid another massive Obama legislative victory and from a public fatigued by four years of political fallout from the ACA. Tackling immigration reform through a series of widely supported smaller bills such as the DREAM Act could give the White House several more easily won legislative victories, while at the same time giving the American public the sense that Obama is enabling forward momentum on the issue. If nothing else, Obama is in immediate need of an initiative get minds off of the failings of the ACA. And if the president does not act quickly to redefine the trajectory of his leadership, he may lose what little clout he has left in Congress.

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