WASHINGTON — For years, President Barack Obama berated Republicans for putting their own political interests ahead of good policy on immigration. In two successive presidential campaigns, he held up Washington's failure to act on immigration as a prime example of the cynical decision-making he said must end in Washington.
Now that he is delaying his own immigration plan until after Election Day, Obama has opened himself to charges from Democrats and Republicans that he's just as guilty of playing politics.
The president's about-face, reversing a promise to take action near the end of summer, has left him with few allies going forward on an issue he had hoped would become a core component of his legacy.
Immigration groups are decrying what they see as a cravenly political move that puts their best interests yet again on the back burner. Republicans are far from appeased; they're accusing Obama of ducking accountability because he still plans to act, just not until after voters go to the polls. Democrats, for the most part, are trying their hardest to stay out of it.
Obama's explanation for his decision to delay — that a summer surge in Central American children crossing into the U.S. illegally had poisoned the atmosphere for immediate action — did little to quell speculation that Obama had actually yielded to midterm politics. After all, nervous red-state Democrats had been complaining throughout the summer that voters would punish them if Obama took provocative, unilateral executive action now, such as deferring deportation for millions of immigrants.
"It's definitely politics," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Sunday. Added Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a prominent immigration advocate: "Playing it safe might win an election ... but it almost never leads to fairness, to justice and to good public policy that you can be proud of."
For Obama, the decision to delay presidential action on immigration laid down a new marker in his evolution from the young presidential candidate who in 2008 vowed to put an end to a political system in Washington driven by self-interest. That aspirational message helped galvanize support from a younger and increasingly diverse electorate — including millions of Hispanics.
But as president, Obama has found that promise among the most difficult to deliver — on more than immigration.
Over time, he's eased his own prohibitions on raising money for super PACs and on lobbyists serving in government, in each instance confronting the reality that changing an entrenched system of government requires more than idealism and good will.
"There's an aspiration when you're running that you can really seize a bureaucracy by the scruff of the neck, but it's a lot harder to do than you think," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. "Once you get to the White House, you deal with the milieu the best you can."
Even as he ran for re-election in 2012, with Washington still firmly jammed by partisanship, Obama predicted his re-election would "break the fever" because Republicans would know he'd never be on the ballot again. He blasted the GOP for withdrawing support for legislation allowing people brought into the U.S. illegally as children to stay, telling Latino elected officials in Florida, "The need hadn't changed. The only thing that had changed was politics."
As signs emerged in recent weeks that Obama would likely delay his immigration plans, White House officials struggled to find a rationale that didn't come down to pure midterm calculations.
At first, Obama suggested he wanted to preserve any prospect for immigration legislation after the election, telling reporters that "hope springs eternal."
Then White House officials started connecting executive action on immigration to the crisis on the border. The administration has made progress in curbing the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving from Central America, and officials said they were concerned if Obama acted now, the numbers might go back up.
When the delay became public over the weekend, White House officials argued the goal wasn't to protect vulnerable Democrats but to ensure that any Democratic losses this year couldn't be used as a future excuse for lawmakers to avoid taking tough votes on immigration. After all, delaying action could hurt some Democrats this year if it discourages Latinos from voting.
"The driving motivation here is take action in a way that is sustainable and successful," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's senior adviser. "Taking action in the hothouse of the political season could end up being a major setback for the cause of fixing our immigration system."
Eager to deter the notion he was putting off progress for good, Obama set himself another deadline: The White House now says executive action will come by the end of 2014.
But for a president who had hoped to be remembered as an agent for change, even a few months could alter the way Obama's leadership is perceived.
"In and of itself, a delay of a few weeks on this one issue is not that big of a deal," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, in an interview. "But the lens the Latino community looks at this through is since before 2008, when promises were made that just have not been kept throughout this administration. All of this does end up affecting how Latinos in the end will view his legacy."
Josh Lederman covers the White House for The Associated Press.