Obama and Latinos

Poor Bill Richardson.  Last summer, he braved the wrath of the Clinton establishment and publicly endorsed Barack Obama for president.  At a time when many Democratic party “super-delegates” were still debating whether to jump ship and back Obama, the former New Mexico Governor’s high-profile break with Hillary helped seal the deal for Obama.  Then, with far less fanfare, Richardson trudged back to the Southwest to try to convince Latino voters who still loved Clinton, and who were still highly suspicious of Obama, to give the party’s new African-American standard-bearer a fighting hance.  And the gambit worked.  In all three of the most critical Southwestern “swing” states – Richardson’s home state of New Mexico, plus Colorado and Nevada – Obama ended up crushing John McCain in the general election, reversing the tide of Latino disaffection from the Democrats that had helped George W. Bush win two terms in office.

And what does Richardson get for his yeoman service on behalf of Obama and the Democrats?    Apparently, nothing more than a pat on the back or what Latinos like to call an “abrazo”

It’s not just that Secretary of Commerce is a second-rung cabinet position that ranks a distant third or fourth in importance behind Treasury or Chairman of the Federal Reserve or even chief of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.  Nor is it that Richardson has already served one Democratic president – Bill Clinton, in fact – as his chief  NAFTA treaty negotiator in Congress, and later, as US Energy Secretary and US Ambassador to the UN, high-profile posts that have earned Richardson a global reputation.  No, the real indignity of the nomination of Bill Richardson as Oabam’s Commerce Secretary is that he isn’t getting the post he really wanted and for which he is eminently qualified – Secretary of State – and that his former friend, and now bitter enemy, Hillary Clinton, is.

When the nation’s leading Latino advocacy groups first got wind of the possibility that Clinton was being considered for the post at State – several days before her name surfaced publicly –  they were aghast.   In fact, the leaders of two groups, LULAC and the National Council for La Raza, quickly fired off a letter to Obama all but demanding that Richardson be given the post.  They didn’t cite Richardson’s craven loyalty to Obama – after all, James Carville had already publicly branded Richardson “Judas” – but his distinguished record of public service, and his obvious qualifications.  Adding insult to injury, Obama didn’t even bother responding to the Latino leadership’s letter.  Instead, he simply let it be known that he wanted Clinton for the post.

The disappointment and frustration that quickly set in among Latinos was palpable.   Janet Murguia, president of La Raza and a signatory of the November 11th letter to Obama, was publicly on the verge of tears.   Have Latinos once again given their hearts to a political candidate who is about to sell them out, she wondered.  In a terse statement, she reminded Obama, and the political establishment generally, that the Latino vote “belongs to no one.”

Murguia’s reaction to Obama’s embrace of domestic Realpolitik – for in the end, that’s what it is – may seem exaggerated.   After all, you say, Latinos are not the only voters – even minority voters – that helped catapult Obama to the presidency.  In addition to the most obvious – African Americans – youth, organized labor, and women, especially suburban women, were all critical to Obama’s historic win, including his narrow but impressive victories in traditional “Red” state bastions like North Carolina and Virginia.  Only in Florida, perhaps, where the Latino share of the state’s electorate is relatively large, and has traditionally voted Republican, was the Latino vote truly and independently decisive, relative to the influence of other voting groups that also supported Obama.

And let’s be real:  Obama’s taking office amid the very real threat of a system-wide economic collapse at home and two simmering and messy wars abroad.  Expecting the new administration to take immediate action on your own issues, as important as they may be – seems rather petty compared to the basic issue of survival, prosperity and peace for all Americans, regardless of race, creed or color, doesn’t it?

Not really.   In fact, how well Obama responds to the pent-up demands for power and influence from key constituency groups like labor, African-Americans and increasingly, Latinos, could well decide whether his fledgling administration succeeds or fails. And Latinos in particular may be especially important to Democrats if they truly hope to realign American politics away from a quarter-century of conservative, center-right rule.   Blacks, after all, have been reliably – and overwhelmingly – Democratic since the Great Society.  Obama won 94% of the Black vote but Al Gore and John Kerry both won 90%.  And a majority of white workers — the so-called Reagan Democrats — typically vote Republican; and this year was no exception.

Latinos, by contrast, are a most eccentric and unpredictable voting constituency that both parties have tended to take for granted historically.  Long considered the “Sleeping Giant” of American politics because of the profound mismatch between their demographics – their “numbers” – and their actual voting stength, Latinos this election proved that they are now wide awake, and considering all of their options.   True, they swung behind Clinton in the 1990s but in 200, and especially in 2004 they confounded the Democratsby swinging behind Bush.   Thhey’ve swung back to the Democrats but if history is any guide they could swing GOP again.  At least enough to win key elections.  That means Obama, who has yet to really prove himself with Latinos politically, could be treading on dangerous ground if he doesn’t find a way to deliver – and deliver soon.

While rebuilding the American economy is a fudamental priority for all voters, Obama must move decisively in his first term to address key issues specific to Latinos.  That won’t be easy.  These issues include:

Immigration reform.   Obama is in a pickle here because the mood in the country is no more hospitable to immigrants than it was in 2007, when immigration reform failed to pass Congress.   Moreover, Obama is aligned with organized labor, which is deeply distrustful of several elements of the 2007 immigration reform package, especially the two guest work provisions, one for skilled workers, the other for the unskilled.   The problem is, these same provisions are critical to winning support from the US business community, which Obama is also wooing to support his broader revitalization program.  Added to these woes is opposition from “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House to any major “amnesty” program for illegal immigrants.   And without a filbuster proof Senate majority, Obama can expect to encounter many of the same political obstacles Bush confronted in securing passage of any bill – only worse.

If Obama addresses immigration reform at all – and he must to maintain credibility with Latinos – he may well choose to promote piecemeal legislation, probably the so-called DREAM act that legalizes a quota of illegal immigrant youth who agree to join the military or perform public service.  However, the numbers involved – perhaps 1.5 million – are a drop in the bucket compared to the 10-12 million illegal immigrants currently in the US.   Assuming he is able to pass such limited legislation, which is far from certain, Obama may be able to sell this to Latinos as a victory.  In fact, in the absence of a broader immigration reform strategy, the masure may only further antagonize US immigration critics.

Education.  Nothing perhaps is more important to Latinos, especially aspiring middle class Latinos, than access to an affordable college education.   Latino drop rates are still phenomenally high, and with continuing high rates of Latino immigration, the incentive for many college-age Latino youth to keep working rather than attend college remains strong. Bill Clinton made real inroads into this problem at a time when the economy could afford a major educational spending program.  Now, Obama is faced with major public spending needs unrelated to education that he will ask all Americans, including Latinos, to support.  It is unclear if his proposed job education training programs, which will largely benefit workers in the skilled trades, will also include a major component for Latinos, either directly, or in the context of a special educational mobility program for unskilled workers, regardless of race or ethnicty.  Competitition between unskilled African-Americans and Latinos is already fierce in many job markets, and any jobs program favoring Latinos could easily breed resentment.  It would also require special language training, which is costly, or would have to be limited to Latinos with strong English skills, which would greatly limit Latino access.

Health.   Obama seems to especially aware of how important health issues are to Latinos. One of his lesser known Latino appointments is scheduled to be Cecilia Muñoz as director of the department of inter-governmental affairs, a branch of the Health and Human Services Department that oversees HHS relations with states and localities.  As a senior vice president at the National Council for La Raza, and as one of its chief spokespersons, Muñoz has been a key figure in the national Latino advocacy community for nearly two decades.   Like many other Latino leaders, she is well aware of the difficulties Latinos have gaining equal access to minority health program funding – in part due to foot-dragging from African-American division directors who sometimes resent Latinos for demanding policy and program attention when African-Americans are also in need.  The Clinton years were replete with stories of executive orders requesting dedicated program attention to Latinos – not just in health, but in all federal bureaucracies – being routinely ignored.  Muñoz will be on the front lines of renegotiating what “multi-cultural” means in a federal bureaucracy that is frequently geared to – and staffed by – African-Americans.  Issues such as whether illegal Latino immigrants will be incorporated into health care reform could prove especially contentious – and that’s assuming that health care reform is even part of Obama’s first term agenda.

Housing.    Housing is another critical issue which affects Latinos because their homeownership rates have typically lagged substantially behind those of non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans, ann homeownership, of course, is key to mobility and advancement.   In fact, this is one area – the other is small business promotion – where  the Bush administration tried mightily to improve the status of Latinos.  Bush named Latinos to head both HUD and SBA.  His HUD director, outgoing RNC chief and Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL), devoted substantial resources to communications and outreach campaigns designed to improve Latino awareness of financing  available to purchase homes.  Now, in the face of major home foreclosures, which disproptionately affect Latinos, it is unclear what steps a new Democratic administration can take to both ameliorate the current crisis, and to continue to improve Latino homeownership rates.

Obama is almost certain to name a Latino – probably Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – as HUD Secetary, but in light of Bush’s past high-level attention here, it is doubtful that Obama will score big points for this, in the absence of a major new homeownership initiative.  Latinos will be expecting priority attention on this front, as will other lower-income groups, and failure or even inattention here could prove especially costly to the Democrats if they expect to consolidate Latino support.

In short, the prognosis for Obama and Latinos is still problematic at best.   Having won a chance to prove himself to America’s fastest growing ethnic population, Obama must now deliver, which will be exceedingly difficult given the current economic climate.   Obama also faces special challenges with Latinos owing to his movement’s primordial allegiance to African-Americans, who are anxious to expand their own power and influence in Washington – and are not about to tolerate too many precedent setting victories for Latinos. And here is where the GOP, which has long viewed the Hispanic vote as a counter-weight to its lack of support among African-Americans, will continue to have an opening.

In fact, Obama probably has two years to demonstrate that he is serious about representing Latino aspirations in his administration beyond naming Latinos to second-echelon cabinet positions.   As improbable as it may seem, without specific and tangible Latino progress – and with a revamped Republican party waiting in the wings – a broader Latino swing back to the GOP at some point in the future is far from inconceivable.  Many moderate Republicans like Texas Gov. Kay Bailey Hutchison who have enjoyed strong Latino support in the past will almost certainly continue to do so.  And on many social issues near and dear to Democratic voters, Latinos will continue to defy Democratic hopes that they will loyally support them across the board.  Last month, Californians voted to ban gay marriage, and 53% of the state’s Latinos – many of them pro-Obama Democrats – voted for the measure.

Si se puede?

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Latino policy expert. He can be reached at: stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com






Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence811147@gmail.com.