President Obama acknowledged on Monday that he has fallen short of his campaign promises to Hispanics but blamed a hostile Congress for his problems and appealed to the Latino community to stick with him while ratcheting up the pressure on Republicans. “I need a dance partner here,” he complained, “and the floor is empty.”
For Obama, the address to the National Council of La Raza at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel was a chance to mend fences with voters who are crucial to his reelection. With the Hispanic vote increasing, the president knew that many of the several thousand persons attending the conference have grown disenchanted with him.
For many of them, the anger is directed at the record number of deportations authorized by his administration, which so far total almost one million undocumented immigrants. Obama blamed “flawed” laws that he suggested he is helpless to change.
“I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books,” he said. “But that doesn't mean I don't know very well the real pain and heartbreak that deportations cause. I share your concerns and I understand them. And I promise you, we are responding to your concerns and working every day to make sure we are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way.”
He added, “I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,” to which he was interrupted by loud applause. He was forced to stop when he tried to resume his speech by many in the audience loudly chanting “Yes, you can! Yes, you can!”—a pointed switch on his 2008 campaign mantra of “Yes, we can.”
The president regained the audience with a joking reference to his current tangle with Republicans in Congress over the debt ceiling. “Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting ... not just on immigration reform,” he said. When the laughter died down, he added, “But that's not how our system works. That’s not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written.”
Signs of the discontent with Obama were easy to find. Before the meeting began, Janet Murguia, the group’s president, told reporters the president had to work hard to win back Hispanics who supported him in 2008 by more than a two-to-one margin, 67 to 31 percent.
After the speech, Murguia said there remains “an honest disagreement” over the deportations. But, noting that none of the Republican presidential candidates who were invited came to the conference, she said many Latino voters face a dilemma. “They're not satisfied that the president has kept his promise—and he acknowledged that—and they're certainly not satisfied with the actions we've seen from some Republicans.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the Hispanic community’s first and most vocal supporters of Obama in 2008, plans to join a rally outside the White House on Tuesday to protest the deportations. Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said the president should heed the chant that interrupted his speech.
“You are the president; you can steer your administration’s policies and practices so that they line up with your values and priorities,” said Sharry. “Yet your administration is deporting more immigrants than ever.” He said the audience’s chant sent Obama “a loud and clear message that the Latino community wants more than speeches.”
Felipe Matos, a 25-year-old undocumented student from Florida, was part of the group of Latino youth who led the chant. He said he enthusiastically supported Obama in 2008, knocking on doors and making calls. “I believed in the promise of change," he said, noting he is still undecided on Obama's reelection.
Noting the absence of GOP presidential candidates, he said, “That talks a lot about them that they don't even have the nerve to come talk to us.” But, he added, “What’s the difference between the person who doesn't say anything and the person who says something but doesn't mean anything?”
He called Obama's address “another empty speech, just courting Latino voters.” He said Obama will learn, though, that Latino voters are “way more savvy than that,” adding, “If he doesn't change his policies it could happen that they will not back him in 2012 like they did in 2008.”
In his speech, Obama urged Hispanics not to let him off the hook. “Keep the heat on me and keep the heat on Democrats,” he urged. “But here’s the only thing you should know. The Democrats and your president are with you. Don't get confused about that. Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws.”
On his failure to push immigration reform through Congress, he blamed Republicans who ran away from their earlier positions. “Five years ago, 23 Republican senators supported comprehensive immigration reform because they knew it was the right thing to do for the economy and it was the right thing to do for America. Today, they’ve walked away,” he said. “Republicans helped write the Dream Act because they knew it was the right thing to do for the country. Today, they’ve walked away.”
He said the Republicans retreated because “the political winds have changed” and because they did not want to be allied with a Democratic president. “As soon as I come out in favor of something, about half of Congress is immediately against it even if it was originally their idea.”
He promised to stay with the Hispanic community “every step of the way.” The White House hope is that the community will stay with him in the 2012 campaign. The Latino clout is evident in numbers released by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The group projects that at least 12.2 million Hispanics will vote next year, a 26 percent increase over 2008. That would give Hispanics almost a 9 percent share of the national vote with the clout enhanced in several key states.
NALEO projects an increase in the Latino vote of 37.8 percent in Illinois, 34.5 percent in Florida, 32.1 percent in California, 23.2 percent in Arizona, 16.2 percent in New Jersey, and 15 percent in Colorado.