If he wants Americans to consider a "path to citizenship" for illegal aliens, he'll have to lead on "enforcement first."
After two postponements, he'll meet with a select group of lawmakers on Thursday to discuss legislation. So far, he's set neither a timeline for a bill, nor outlined one.
The difference between the campaign trail and the Oval Office is political reality. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted last week, "The votes aren't there right now."
For one thing, the timing is all wrong. A move to put the country's 11.6 million illegal immigrants on a "path to citizenship" – and legal jobs – would upset Americans mired in a deep recession.
Meanwhile, the White House has put two big legislative priorities ahead of immigration this year: healthcare and energy. That's a lot for Congress to digest – maybe too much.
Then there's politics. The president owes voters who backed him in swing states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio; many of them strenuously oppose what is seen as amnesty in disguise. On the other hand, he's indebted to Latino voters who helped him carry the key swing states of New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. Indeed, the Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid from Nevada, vows to move on immigration reform this year.
This leaves Obama in the role of a circus performer, trying to straddle two horses at once:
He's trying to keep one group with him by continuing many of President Bush's enforcement policies – and by even expanding them. His budget proposes increased funding for E-Verify (the electronic system that allows employers to check the legal status of their workers); more money to hire people to identify criminal illegal immigrants in US jails and prisons – and then deport them; and a commitment to put a barrier of electronic detectors along the Mexican border.