As the nation viewed 24/7 live footage of oil decimating livelihoods and befouling our shores, I flew to Washington on Sunday to take a pulse reading on the prospects for immigration reform. En route, I read an Op-Ed piece by New York Times writer Frank Rich.

One of my favorite columnists, Rich offered a spot-on diagnosis of an administration that seemed helpless to stanch the gusher in the Gulf or the anger and anguish in the people’s hearts. He harkened to an earlier era when a determined president contained Big Oil, invoking the memory of a Republican with whom President Obama shares many “moral and intellectual convictions.” With President Obama facing a “Teddy Roosevelt pivot-point,” Rich suggested, convincingly, that the present occupant of the Oval Office must first overcome his default approach to problem-solving:

Obama can’t embrace his inner T.R. as long as he’s too in thrall to the supposed wisdom of the nation’s meritocracy, too willing to settle for incremental pragmatism as a goal, and too inhibited by the fine points of Washington policy.

After spending this week in Washington conferring with policy wonks and federal officials, I’m convinced that Rich’s analysis applies at least as strongly to the oily politics of immigration.

To recap events since January, 2009: The President arrived in the White House, having been carried aloft by campaign pledges of immigration reform in Year One. He embraced the received Beltway wisdom that an all-or-nothing approach to reform legislation, the “grand bargain,” was the only viable strategy. Unless, as his brainiacs pontificated, border security were yoked to the twin must-haves of legal status for the undocumented and a plan for future inbound flows, nothing would be accomplished. Well, Obama and his advisers were right: Nothing has been achieved.

The supposed cognoscenti who claim to understand the “fine points of Washington policy” now urge proponents of reform to accept the reality of “incremental” (or more accurately, uneventful) “pragmatism,” and wait for just the right time. Nothing will happen, the wise ones say, until willing Republicans see the light – perhaps during the lame-duck session, or maybe very early in 2011, well before the presidential campaign season ramps up and makes any bipartisan deal impossible. But, they add, if Hayworth unseats McCain, all bets are off.

Meantime, immigration dysfunctions fester:

In my view, the only pragmatism worth pursuing is the piecemeal kind that makes substantial down payments on comprehensive solutions to our immigration crisis. Why shouldn’t Congress pursue enactment of smaller bills with historically bipartisan support like the Dream Act and AgJobs? Why shouldn’t the President use this time of crisis to act forthrightly, and issue executive orders and new regulations that provide relief to dispirited foreign citizens who’ve languished for years in the domestic line for green cards? Why not use presidential authority to defer action on the millions of unauthorized heads of households and grant them work permits, while ICE pursues drug and sex traffickers and violent criminals?

Rich observes that “Obama has yet to find a sensible middle course between blind faith in his own Ivy League kind and his predecessor’s go-with-the-gut bravado.”

Change the facts on the ground, I say, and get much of the immigration crisis behind us now. This is the “sensible middle course.” Otherwise, our inability to stop the gooey crude from polluting America’s Southern coast stands as a metaphor for the learned helplessness that is this federal government’s response to our polity’s broken immigration laws.