WASHINGTON (AP) — Announcing his executive actions, after all the delays and handwringing, might be the easy part.
Now President Barack Obama must sell the politics and the policy of his go-it-alone immigration strategy while he is at one of the lowest points in his presidency — and after a wave of Central American migrants at the U.S. border eroded public support for easing up on deportations.
Many Americans still support paths to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the US, but they don't tend to support Obama acting on his own. Therein rests the dilemma for a White House that wants to leave something of a legacy on immigration even as the president's proximity to the issue threatens to raise its toxicity.
To be sure, Obama has assets. Without congressional approval, his actions should protect from deportation nearly 5 million more immigrants illegally in the United States. And he can veto efforts by the new Republican-controlled Congress to roll back his measures.
But he needs to get immigrants to participate in enough numbers that the program becomes sustainable, and he wants to fight back against the Republican argument that he's overstepping his bounds, lest the policy lose even more political support.
The White House appeared to have overcome its first hurdle — winning the support of major immigrant advocacy groups even though one of their more significant requests went unmet. Advocates had pressed Obama to provide deportation protections to parents of "Dreamers," the young people who entered the country illegally as children and who are now eligible for work permits under a 2012 Obama directive.
Obama and White House officials have told immigration supporters that his legal authority went only so far. Still, the breadth of the actions he is taking are far-reaching enough that groups that had once criticized his deportation record and accused him of timidity and delay rallied enthusiastically to his side Thursday as they learned the details of his plan.
"It doesn't have everything we wanted, but it's a lot," said Lorella Praeli, the advocacy and policy director at United We Dream.
During the recent midterm election campaign, some Democrats distanced themselves from Obama and urged him to delay his immigration executive action, fearing that it would hurt them. Many of them lost anyway.
This time, White House officials say they believe Obama is the best messenger for the immigration plan and he plans maximum exposure with road trips and interviews. Officials say Obama also intends to make widespread use of social media, as he did Wednesday when he announced his Thursday speech on Facebook.
Obama was launching his sales pitch Friday at the same Las Vegas high school where he spelled out his blueprint for a comprehensive immigration reform plan last year.
The White House believes Obama has three tasks:
First, officials believe he must respond forcefully to Republican criticism that he has exceeded his authority. That negative idea appears to be embedded with the public; a Wall Street Journal NBC poll released this week showed that 48 percent of those surveyed opposed Obama taking executive action on immigration while 38 supported the idea. Moreover, only one in three people said they wanted Obama to take the lead in setting policy for the country, whereas 56 percent said they wanted Congress to have that job.
But when asked about specific policy measures, without Obama's name attached, nearly three of four respondents said they favored a pathway to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the U.S. if they paid a fine and back taxes and passed a security background check. Those are key elements of Obama's legislative proposal to overhaul immigration. His executive actions do not provide a path to citizenship.
Second, Obama wants to make sure immigrants eligible for his program do enroll. Advocates fear that with only two years left in Obama's presidency and with Republican threats to undo the executive actions, eligible immigrants won't sign up.
Without enrollment by millions of immigrants seeking to obtain work permits, these advocates fear, Obama's executive order would become an easy target for a new president with a different immigration agenda.
Third, Obama needs to ensure a wary public that his policies will not encourage further illegal border crossings, like the ones this summer by unaccompanied minors and families fleeing from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
So while Obama will be eager to tell immigrants who are illegally in the U.S. what his orders are all about, look for the administration to begin sending a loud message to Central America about what it is not.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for The Associated Press