- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

President Obama faced an increasingly wary Democratic Party on Tuesday as he delivered his final State of the Union address, with his own troops distancing themselves from his legacy-building push for a free trade deal, his softer approach to Iran’s weapons programs and, perhaps most pointedly, his administration’s series of raids targeting illegal immigrants.

The concern over the raids boiled over Tuesday, with House Democrats pointedly releasing a letter just hours before Mr. Obama’s speech accusing him of sending mothers and children back to potential death sentences at the hands of gangs in Central America.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who led the letter campaign, brushed aside worries that he was showing dissent ahead of the president’s speech.

“I didn’t come here to really worry too much about people in the executive or positions in power, and if they feel uncomfortable, that’s not something that I really concern myself with. I concern myself with people whose lives are at stake,” he said.

Mr. Gutierrez went on to say that he and most of the other 145 lawmakers who signed the letter denouncing the raids were among Mr. Obama’s staunchest backers, having defended Obamacare over the past five years and upheld his Iran nuclear deal in a major test vote last year.

But Mr. Gutierrez said Democrats could not abide when the administration “sows the seeds of terror” in immigrant communities.

Mr. Obama did not mention the raids Tuesday and breezed his way through the immigration issue with a boilerplate call for Congress to take action. Ahead of the speech, an aide acknowledged that the White House was hearing Democrats’ concerns on “an incredibly sensitive issue.”

The president did issue several other calls for action that will challenge his own party, including asking Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a massive free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

Democrats aren’t buying it, however. A group of them held a press conference Monday to preempt Mr. Obama’s expected call for passage of the TPP, saying the deal fails to demand a level playing field on labor and environmental standards.

On Iran, Mr. Obama was trying to quell dissent from Democrats who supported his nuclear deal but who said he had to take a tougher stand against the Islamic republic’s recent ballistic missile tests.

“I don’t know why the administration has hesitated,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, told reporters this week after returning from the Middle East. He said U.S. allies there are wondering whether Mr. Obama is too intent on protecting his nuclear deal.

Mr. Coons said he supported that initial deal on the understanding that the administration would keep pressure on Iran’s other weapons programs, such as its missile development.

Republican leaders will put Democrats to the test Wednesday by scheduling a vote to prevent the White House from lifting some of the sanctions in the nuclear deal on any banks or regime officials deemed to have a role in the ballistic missile program.

Worries about Mr. Obama are playing out on the campaign trail, where the three top Democratic presidential candidates have renounced the trade deal and the immigration raids.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent running for the Democratic nomination, has led the way, but even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s top diplomat in his first administration, has broken with him and renounced the TPP agreement on which she worked and calling for a halt to the raids.

The worries about Mr. Obama have limits, and he still has some powerful cheerleaders on Capitol Hill.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, ticked off an extensive list of accomplishments the president has notched: an unemployment rate down to 5 percent, health care coverage extended to millions of Americans, a U.S. automobile industry posting record sales and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“We’ve destroyed and degraded terrorist organizations. Of course there’s more we have to do, lots more we have to do, and we’re trying to do them,” Mr. Reid said. “The historic agreements on climate change and stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is — I’ve said it all — it’s historic.”

Beyond the Capitol, Democratic voters remain firmly committed to the president and his cause with an approval rating of 81 percent in the latest CBS/New York Times poll.

When Republican, Democratic and independent voters are counted, Mr. Obama’s approval rating stands at about 44 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics.com average of polls — some 10 percentage points above President George W. Bush’s at this point in his tenure.

But the immigration raids could dent Mr. Obama’s standing, particularly with Hispanic voters who have run hot and cold during his seven years in office.

“Between Obama’s home raids stoking fear and Republicans’ rhetoric stoking hate, immigrant communities are wondering what’s next,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading advocacy, who warned of a political price to pay. “In the face of fear and demagoguery, the immigrant community is speaking up loudly and organizing to defend itself. Those who disregard this power do so at their own peril.”

The Obama administration is trapped by the situation. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson approved the raids late last year, targeting some of the more than 100,000 illegal immigrant mothers and children who have been arrested at the border since the beginning of 2014, yet who have refused to comply when ordered deported.

Only 121 illegal immigrants have been rounded up — well less than half a percent of the eligible population. Mr. Johnson said he has targeted only those who have exhausted all of their chances for appeal and who have not qualified for asylum.

But activists say the illegal immigrants didn’t get a fair chance to make their asylum cases because the government didn’t grant them attorneys or, in some cases, didn’t even have translators on hand to help the immigrants understand their cases.

Mr. Reid said he spoke with Mr. Johnson on Tuesday afternoon and expects a “pause” in the raids.

It may have been a coincidence, but Mr. Johnson was designated the sole Cabinet secretary to sit out the speech Tuesday night to ensure the continuity of government in case of a catastrophic event at the Capitol.

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