President Obama, seeking to shore up support among a key constituency that wants to see him work more to keep his 2008 promises, staunchly defended his record on Latino issues on Wednesday, insisting that “it is just not true” that he can somehow bypass the Congress to push the Hispanic agenda.
The president also predicted that there will be a serious Hispanic presidential candidate in his lifetime, and put the burden on the Cuban government to relax its grip on the island if the six-decade-old embargo is to be lifted.
Obama’s comments came in response to almost an hour of questions from Latinos. He used the session to defend his record on immigration, deportations, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The questions were sent in by readers of Yahoo, MSN Latino, and AOL Latino/Huffington Post Latino Voices.
Latinos were among the strongest supporters of Obama three years ago, giving him 67 percent of their vote, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But a poll commissioned by Republican groups and taken Sept. 6-10 showed that support slipping, with majorities in Florida, Colorado and New Mexico saying the president has not delivered on his campaign promises affecting the Hispanic community. That poll was taken for the conservative Hispanic Leadership Institute and Resurgent Republic, a Republican-oriented polling group.
The president gave no ground, hitting back firmly when one questioner from New York accused him of failing to use his executive powers to get around a balky Congress. “This notion that somehow I can somehow just change the laws unilaterally is just not true. We are doing everything we can administratively. But the fact of the matter is there are laws on the books that I have to enforce,” he said.
Such criticisms of him, he added, are “a great disservice” to the hopes of getting either the Dream Act or comprehensive immigration reform passed, “perpetuating the notion that somehow I, myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true.”
He said this will lead to “a constant dead end” and said the critics “have to recognize how the system works and then apply pressure to those places where votes can be gotten.”
Obama talked about the chances of a Latino being elected president. “I am absolutely certain that within my lifetime we will have a Latino candidate for president who is very competitive and may win,” he said. His certainty, he said, is based on the demographics and the growth of the Hispanic population. “With numbers comes political power,” he said, adding a plea to Latinos to register and vote if they want to flex that political muscle. “We still have not seen the kinds of participation levels that are necessary to match up the numbers with actual political power,” Obama said.
Asked about possibly lifting the embargo on Cuba, Obama said he had tried to “send a signal” to Fidel Castro and the island’s repressive government “that we are open to a new relationship with Cuba if the Cuban government starts taking the proper steps to open up its own country and provide the space and the respect for human rights that will allow the Cuban people to determine their own destiny.”
That signal included changes in remittance and family travel laws. “We’re prepared to show flexibility and not be stuck in a Cold War mentality dating back to when I was born,” Obama said. But he said he has seen no signal back from the government such as releasing political prisoners or providing more human rights. Without that, he said, lifting the embargo is not justified.
On an issue that draws particular criticism from Hispanic leaders, Obama attributed higher deportation numbers under his administration to more effective apprehensions of persons trying to cross the border. The statistics, he argued, are “a little deceptive” because people are being turned back even before they can enter the United States.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, stressed the effect of the record-high deportations on family members. “Many of our members have been alarmed by the number of deportations,” he said. He also called the president’s trip to California earlier this week “such a missed opportunity” because he did not meet with the community there. “California is more than an ATM,” he said pointedly.
On perhaps the issue of biggest concern to many Hispanics, the president held out hope for economic improvement, calling for passage of his jobs bill. Median household wealth among Hispanics fell 66 percent -- from $18,359 to $6,325 -- from 2005 to 2009, according to the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project. That is the biggest drop among the groups studied. Median household wealth declined 53 percent in black households and 16 percent among white households.
Julian Teixeira, director of communications for the National Council of La Raza, welcomed the White House event, noting, “Nobody can take us for granted.” He said that immigration reform is important to Latino voters. But, he added, “Latinos and Hispanics aren’t different from anybody else: they’re worried about job creation, education and the housing crisis.”
Sophie Quinton contributed. contributed to this article.