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Roger Simon: Obama's legacy

December 15. 2012 8:27PM

To the winner go the spoils. The spoiled political system. The spoiled economy. The spoiled machinations of a spoiled Congress.

Yet we elect our President to do things, to produce silk purses from sows' ears, and President Barack Obama intends to add to his legacy and make history in his final term. Sources knowledgeable with Obama's 2013 legislative agenda paint the picture of a man emboldened by his recent success at the polls, freed from the need for reelection and convinced he must take a more activist role in the shaping and passage of legislation.

First, the raising of tax rates on the wealthy is very much on the table. If that is part of a Grand Bargain, fine. But he wants it either way. The Grand Bargain would change the tax code to raise rates on the wealthy coupled with "reforms" to Medicare and Social Security. The former will lead to howls from the right, and the latter to howls from the left. Maybe the howls will cancel each other out, maybe not. The President intends to go forward anyway.

A Grand Bargain is not expected to be accomplished by the current, lame-duck 112th Congress. The kind of legislative wrangling necessary, plus the dotting of the i's and the crossing of the t's would take most, if not all, of 2013.

What about the fiscal cliff? Some kind of congressional prestidigitation, a down payment, perhaps, that will satisfy the credit agencies and investors, may have to be found before the tumble into the abyss. If Congress is a master of anything, it is of delay.

But Obama also wants at least one more historic act in his second term to add to his first-term creation of Obamacare: comprehensive immigration reform. In 2008, he promised to make it a priority, but failed to deliver.

According to sources, the White House feels it now has a win-win situation on immigration: The Republicans go along with what the White House wants (which would be a Democratic win) or face the prospect of further alienating Hispanic voters and losing seats in 2014 (which would also be a Democratic win).

When the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act failed once again to clear Congress in 2010, Obama instituted his own mini-DREAM action in 2012 by deferring the deportation of people who came to the United States illegally before reaching the age of 16, who had high school diplomas or honorable discharges from the military and were not felons.

But the deferrals will last only two years, do not put anyone "on the road to citizenship" and do not cover those who came here as adults. In other words, Obama's mini-DREAM covers only a small fraction of those who reside in America illegally.

Now, the White House will quickly push for a comprehensive change in the immigration system that will cover everybody. Part of the reform includes the usual "get tough" promises: Obama pledges to concentrate on keeping out those who would "do our nation harm," to hold accountable those U.S. companies that "hire and exploit undocumented workers" and to achieve a "reliable" way to verify whether someone is in the country legally or not. (That last promise is not as easy as it sounds. Even though the government touts its "E-Verify" system, it produces many false results and is used by only a few hundred thousand firms out of the millions of businesses in America.)

In return for the get-tough measures, a pathway to legal status is promised for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already in the country. Illegal immigrants must come forward, register, be fingerprinted, undergo a criminal and national security background check, pay any back taxes, a fee and a fine, learn English and get "in line to become eligible for citizenship," a process that would take at least 13 years.

It could take much longer. "Illegal immigrants who complete all the requirements of the legalization program will have to go to the back of the line," the White House says, which means those who meet all the criteria still will have to get in back of those who reside overseas and are applying to enter the United States legally.

If all that sounds like a long, tough road, it is meant to. The problem is that many Republicans still think Obama's plan sounds tough without actually being tough. And, they say, when you get right down to it, the whole shebang still amounts to amnesty.

In September, Obama said "my biggest failure so far is we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done, so we're going to be continuing to work on that."

He blamed Republicans who previously had been supportive of reform but had walked away from it at election time. The election is now over, however; Obama won, and the Democrats picked up seats in the Senate and the House. And Obama believes the power of the Hispanic vote has never been more evident and that gives him enormous clout in getting reform passed.

The Republicans are not shattered as a party, but they are worried about their future and they can see the handwriting on the wall. It's written in Spanish.

Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist.

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