Obama switches to "borders first" rhetoric on immigration

During the campaign, Barack Obama ridiculed John McCain’s belated insistence on fixing border security before passing immigration reform.  Now, though, Obama’s budget increases both the employee-verification system pushed by George Bush and the personnel and resources for border interdiction.  Republicans cautiously cheered the change in direction, but think Obama just doesn’t have a handle on border issues:

On the thorniest of political issues, President Obama has embraced the enforcement-first position on immigration that he criticized during last year’s presidential campaign, and he now says he can’t move forward with the type of comprehensive bill he wants until voters are convinced that the borders can be enforced.

Having already backed off his pledge to have an immigration bill this year, Mr. Obama boosted his commitment to enforcement in the budget released Thursday. The spending blueprint calls for extra money to build an employee-verification system and to pay for more personnel and equipment to patrol the border.

This security-first stance is not unlike that of President George W. Bush, Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who said their immigration bill failed in 2007 because voters didn’t trust the government to be serious about enforcement.

“If the American people don’t feel like you can secure the borders,” Mr. Obama said at his press conference last week, “then it’s hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here, because the attitude of the average American is going to be, ‘Well, you’re just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year.’ ”

Republicans say the shift is a sign that Mr. Obama, who during the campaign repeatedly called the issue a priority, is uncertain how to move forward.

It could just be triangulation, too.  Obama may not have done much in his brief career in the Senate, but he certainly could count votes.  Enough Democrats had issues with an amnesty-first approach that he knows another try could do significant damage to his standing on Capitol Hill. Offering a sop on border security could put opponents off-balance enough to get comprehensive reform through the Senate.

It could also do a lot of damage to his chances for re-election.  The reaction by the electorate could be even worse than it was in 2007.  When irate voters flooded Senate phone lines with their opposition, the economy was humming along and unemployment was low.  Now, with joblessness skyrocketing and no end in sight to the downturn, a move to legalize illegal aliens could very well prove a game-changer and generate lasting resentment among the working-class populists Obama carefully courted in 2008.

Border security is a safer arena for Obama in a deep recession.  Obama has apparently realized this.  Comprehensive-reform and amnesty advocates will almost certainly be disappointed as long as the economy continues to sink.