President Barack Obama's legacy among Latino voters may well hinge on the success of the sweeping immigration legislation before the Senate today. Notably absent, however, are the agenda-pushing tactics that have become synonymous with his leadership style. The crowd-rousing stump speeches and cross-country media tours that were staples of his push on gun control, sequestration and health care are nowhere to be found.
Instead, he's left the game-time decisions up to eight men, four Republicans and four Democrats. Even as hundreds of amendments are filed on the immigration bill, Obama has held his tongue on many of them from border security triggers to provisions requiring immigrants to pay all back taxes before they are eligible for legal status.
And that, the gang of eight says, is intentional, adding it is his best bet if he wants an immigration bill on his desk before the clock runs out on his second term.
"I think he has played the right role so far, the outside cheerleader," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told reporters Tuesday during a breakfast at the Liaison Hotel. "That has been useful and effective. As a Republican it would be more difficult if he were out front and pushing this issue."
Republicans in the gang of eight are finding it difficult enough to court their GOP colleagues to support a bill that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally. The last thing they need is a Democratic president with few allies on Capitol Hill adding his touch to a delicately forged deal.
"The president obviously wants to pass immigration reform. He has been constructive in this process by allowing us to see how far we can get on the legislation negotiating together," says Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. "I think if things continue the way they have been, that would be very positive."
Complicating the politics for Obama is his checkered history on immigration reform. As a burgeoning young senator, Obama worked alongside bipartisan immigration power couple Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to craft a sweeping immigration bill in 2007 under the direction of President George W. Bush. But he also voted for an amendment to weaken a guest worker program at the request of big labor groups during the floor debate. The move made sense for a junior senator with political aspirations, but many say his vote ultimately killed the momentum all together.
And while he had promised to make immigration reform a top priority of his first term, the president, once in office, opted to tackle health care first to the chagrin of the Latino allies who had helped put him in the Oval Office.
By the time he sought to legalize immigrants who came to the country as children under the DREAM Act, he had already burned some of the key Republican bridges he needed to pass a bill for the Hispanic community.
"There have certainly been other instances where he has not held back enough. During the DREAM Act in his first term, some Republicans saw the bill as a Democratic bill that they were there to vote against. And they did," says Brent Wilkes, the executive director of LULAC, a nonpartisan Latino group that is pushing for comprehensive reform.
When Obama finally made progress on immigration reform, it was in the heat of an election year. He issued an executive order to give deferred status to immigrants who entered the country illegally as kids, angering Republican advocates for immigration reform like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was drafting his own plan for DREAMers. Many dismissed his move as pure election-year politicking and accused him of pandering for Latino votes. But Latinos, put off by GOP nominee Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" rhetoric, came out in droves for Obama. He won 75 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Republican strategists say the president has managed his role in the immigration debate with political tact that has not always been evident in the Obama administration's governing strategy.