As President Bush and his handlers prep for the 8 pm address, it's worth remembering how little the president wanted to confront the issue of immigration this year. It didn't come up in his 2004 Republican convention speech (although the assembled at Madison Square Garden did chant "Viva Bush!" and the Republic didn't collapse). The 2005 State of the Union contained one paragraph about immigration: the need for "temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take." The 2006 SOTU also contained one paragraph about immigration, wherein Bush pledged "stronger immigration enforcement and border protection" alongside "a rational, humane guest worker program." In all of these cases, Bush pushed far, far harder for entitlement reform, legal reform, tax cuts, and wars of liberation than he did for any kind of immigration changes. More than that, the policy shift Bush is expected to endorse tonight—militarization of the border—cuts against his image and his previously-expressed feelings on the issue.
Social Security reform hit the rocks after the president stumped relentlessly; immigration reform has taken center stage even as the president did his best to ignore it. Why? Support for the former reform was top-down, but passion for the latter issue was real and bubbled up from citizen activism. Virtually all of the lobbying for Social Security reform came from beltway think tanks or groups somehow aligned with the GOP. Virtually all of the lobbying for immigration came from completely unconnected groups—the Minutemen, talk radio, cable news. Whatever your stance on the border debate, it's a nice reminder of how little control the executive actually has over the course of events.