It is hard to remember, on President Obama’s second inauguration, that less than a decade ago he was a relatively unknown Senate candidate. It was in 2004, at the Democratic convention, when Obama introduced himself to the nation with these dreamy, hopeful words: “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States.”
Ironically, the success of the domestic agenda in his second term — which, as of now, appears centered on immigration reform and gun control — depends on playing to both red states and the blue ones.
Neither immigration nor gun control had a significant place in Obama’s first-term agenda. Indeed, at their core, both are public safety programs — messy and dark and generally removed from the “hope” that got him to the White House. But in the span of a few weeks, the 2012 presidential election and the massacre at Newtown, Conn., provided the impetus for a renewed push for both comprehensive immigration reform and comprehensive gun controls.
The question now is whether the White House can do both, and that has proponents of immigration reform very anxious. Pro-immigration forces had the president’s ear in November. Hispanics are now over 10 percent of the total electorate, twice as big a portion as just 20 years ago, and they gave Obama over 70 percent of their votes.
But then all those children were killed in Newtown, and immigration reform became a lesser priority. The moral obligation to address gun violence fell quickly on Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Their announcement last week of sweeping legislative and administrative changes was driven by a near-universal revulsion at what happened in Connecticut. A CBS News/New York Times poll released last Thursday showed that, among Democrats, 93 percent support background check for gun purchasers; among Republicans, it’s 89 percent. These numbers are more than a mandate; they make some kind of change a foregone conclusion.
The political reality today is that immigration reform and gun control can occur simultaneously, because they are being driven by different forces. This is hopeful news for those who believe we should be judged as a nation both by how we treat our newest citizens and protect our youngest ones.
With Republicans now eager to engage in a discussion on immigration reform, to undo some of the damage of their past resistance, Obama can leave much of the impetus for immigration to the red states and promote gun control via the blue ones. The last part is already happening: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo either are pushing, or have already passed, state legislation in tandem with the White House’s gun-control effort. Democrats in conservative states, like Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, will need the White House to stay engaged on gun control, if only to provide them with cover.
Meanwhile, as Republicans become more recalcitrant on gun control — and the lunacy of the NRA’s media campaign continues — they will need to find an issue that makes them seem kinder and gentler. Enter immigration reform. The Republicans know that their future rests on embracing a more diverse electorate. They need immigration reform as much as it needs them. This pressure is felt most acutely by state-level Republican leaders aiming for 2016, such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Hints of this strategy were apparent last week, when the White House complimented Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio for conceding, in a Wall Street Journal interview, that he would support a path for citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. The Obama administration can afford to be gracious to Rubio, the GOP’s rising star and a likely 2016 presidential candidate. They had stolen his thunder last summer when they stopped deportations of young, illegal immigrants (the DREAMers) before Rubio could get a similar proposal out.
Republican governors in swing states, such as New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, are showing a particular receptiveness to immigration reform (as they are to Obamacare). They can see the future of their electorate, and it is neither red, blue, nor white.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.