Obama gets cash, earful of frustration in Bay Area

10:54 PM, Nov 25, 2013   |    comments
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SAN FRANCISCO -- For a full 24 minutes, it was just the kind of event Barack Obama has cultivated in his time as president: by the book, no surprises and -- now noticed by just about every journalist who happens to cover the events -- no real news.

And that's when a young man in the back row of the riser behind the president at the Betty Ong Recreation Center in San Francisco's Chinatown decided that he'd had enough.

"Mr. Obama," said Ju Hong, "my family has been separated for 19 months now!"

Obama's first inclination, as he neared the final few sentences in his Monday speech urging Congress to act on immigration reform, seemed to be to keep going with the speech in his teleprompter.

But Hong was now a man on a mission, as most of the invited audience squirmed uncomfortably.

"We need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the same time we -- you -- have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country," said the young man, who later identified himself as a graduate student from South Korea and in the U.S. without legal authorization.

The president, soon confronted by several students on the riser behind his podium, quickly realized that the security team ascending the stairs to rush the students to the exits would be a lousy photo op.  

"Don't worry about it guys," he said to the agents.  The crowd applauded.

For the next two minutes, the president turned and addressed the students directly, offering perhaps the best defense of his approach on immigration... but in essence a defense, to his natural fan base in a city like San Francisco, of how he governs.

The students had yelled for Obama to issue an executive order to stop most, or all, deportations while a long-term fix is hammered out.

The president disagreed.

"If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so," said the president... who then seemed to sense an opening.

"The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. And what I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve."

The crowd of about 400 applauded.

But the president's inability to either move the political needle through that kind of battle, or to convince his loyal supporters that these are the right tactics, seems to be partly the problem as the first year of his second term comes to a close.

The Chinatown event was one of only two speaking events on his brief visit to California and was buzzed about as perhaps a chance to lay out some new and game changing ideas on the immigration issue.  A broad plan that passed the U.S. Senate back in June remains stuck in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The president, in his San Francisco speech, praised some signs that House Republicans want to get going on the issue, though exactly what they have in mind remains unclear.

(Most of this westward journey is to raise money.  The president attended two fundraisers in Seattle, two more in San Francisco after this speech, and three in the Los Angeles area by the time he departs on Tuesday.)

But the buzz of something new in the San Francisco event on immigration was off base.  The president generally stuck to a familiar message of why immigrants -- even those here illegally -- contribute to the nation. He chose to focus on the economic argument.

"You don't have to be an economist to figure out that workers will be more productive if they've got their families here with them, they're not worried about deportation," said Obama.

The students, having said their peace, pretty much let it go at that.  Afterwards, Ju Hong made it clear to reporters that he wasn't impressed.

"I was willing to listen to what President Obama had to say," he said, "but the fact of the matter is it was very disappointing."

Others in the crowd were anxious on the issue, though more hopeful... including one GOP state legislator who's crossed party lines to urge a federal fix.  And soon.

"I just think you want to give people an incentive to remain in this country," said state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. "I don't know why it's not happening."

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


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