Publicly, the Obama White House remains confident that key Democratic voter groups will show up at the polls this November, allowing the party to retain control of the US Senate and minimize its losses in the House. But don’t believe a word of what you hear from top Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). The party’s desperation is palpable – and growing. As I wrote last month, the erosion of support among Latinos has reached alarming levels not seen since the collapse of mid-2011. And unlike in late 2012, when Obama could issue an executive order staying the deportation of undocumented immigrant students, electrifying his Latino base, the president has much less room to maneuver now. A second executive order, which many Latino activists are urging upon the President, could feed the GOP’s narrative about “executive overreach,” further alienating independent voters in key competitive districts.
Moreover, the GOP is no longer as vulnerable on immigration as it once was. In recent months, the party has largely closed ranks on the need for some version of “comprehensive immigration reform” – including a partial “amnesty” — and has even begun outlining elements of the legislation it plans to pass should it capture control of the Senate. The GOP’s willingness to play ball – even if on its own terms — makes it difficult to justify an executive order, and indeed, severely raises the risk that such a move will be seen as a transparent partisan maneuver. However much it might galvanize Latinos, it could easily backfire with everyone else.
If immigration were Obama’s only problem, it might be easier for the president to assuage Latino concerns. However, Latinos are beginning to peel away from the Democrats for other reasons. A little-noticed Zogby poll released this week found that Latinos still tend to trust the Democrats more than the GOP to handle foreign policy, health care, and education, and still believe that Democrats are more in touch with Latino concerns on the whole. However, Latinos have now joined the rest of the country in turning against the president on the economy, favoring the GOP 36%-25%. In fact, a large percentage of Latino voters are still undecided on nearly all of these issues, and the Democrats barely earn 35% support even when they do edge out the GOP. This means that much of the Latino vote, in a way not seen since the Bush years, is volatile, and might swing either way.
Part of the challenge for Obama is not just to win over Latino public opinion in the abstract but to rally Latino advocacy organizations – and the all-important Hispanic media — to exhort Latinos to vote. But Obama hasn’t given these organizations much to cheer about. In fact, they aren’t just disappointed that Obama is letting the GOP upstage him on immigration; they’re also disturbed that the president, despite his assurances, hasn’t appointed more Latinos to positions in his government – far fewer than his predecessor, in fact. During his first term, no Latino occupied a top cabinet post but Obama did name Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor and Ken Salazar as Secretary of Interior. However, both have since left government. A year ago, in response to criticism from the National Council for La Raza, the president agreed to work on a special initiative with the Office of Personnel Management to recruit and hire Latinos to more positions in the federal bureaucracy. La Raza welcomed the move but it hasn’t mollified Latinos or soothed their anger at having played such an important role in winning Obama’s re-election without having received much in the way of political rewards – to say nothing of real economic advancement.
It’s that anger – and the real and growing threat of more massive Latino disaffection — which explains two recent developments. One is Obama’s largely behind-the-scenes review of his deportation policy, focusing specifically on the controversial – and euphemistically named – “Secure Communities” program. The program — begun in the waning days of the Bush administration, but fast-tracked under Obama — requires all of the nation’s prisons to identify and detain undocumented immigrants convicted of a major felony. In fact, the program has exceeded its mandate by deporting thousands of immigrants guilty of minor misdemeanors—or worse, persons merely suspected of committing a crime. Once a person is brought in for questioning – and booked – his or her fingerprints are sent to a federal database and matched against those with legal status. Those that fail the check can be detained immediately, even if they turn out to be innocent of whatever charge they were first arrested on. Adding insult to injury, Obama has even tried to make Secure Communities mandatory and to eliminate an “opt out” for local jurisdictions, including some “sanctuary” cities, that might object to the program. Now even many police chiefs are quietly resisting compliance, and Obama, according to inside sources, is considering suspending or even eliminating the program, if only to assuage Latinos in the run up to the mid-terms.
A second, more visible part of Obama’s Latino damage-control strategy was his decision last week – largely unexpected – to appoint three-term San Antonio mayor Julian Castro to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Castro, a rising young Latino star, made a big splash nationally when he delivered the keynote address for Obama at the Democratic Party convention in 2012. Some of Castro’s boosters have promoted the idea that he might make an attractive running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – a long-shot at best, given how “green” he still is. Nevertheless, his appointment at HUD is likely to fuel such speculation further, which can only help Obama and the Democrats in the short-term. Could the HUD posting give Castro the managerial experience he sorely lacks, while raising his visibility still further? Not likely. Historically, he position at HUD has proven to a graveyard for those with national electoral ambitions – just ask Rep. Jack Kemp or Henry Cisneros, another Democratic Latino – and coincidentally, another former San Antonio mayor — who was passed over for the vice presidency by Walter Mondale in 1984. Cisneros met with Mondale thinking that the former vice president was seriously considering him for the post but Mondale quickly disabused him of that notion, saying a stint at HUD hardly gave Cisneros – Latino or not — the gravitas and heft he needed to contribute powerfully to the ticket.
In fact, when Castro himself was asked about a slot at HUD a year ago, he disavowed any interest in serving in Obama administration at any level. He admitted, though, that he might consider Transportation. The fact is, Castro can only run for one more two-year term as mayor of San Antonio and there are few other political avenues open in a state like Texas that still leans strongly GOP, despite the best efforts of Democrats to turn it Blue. He needs a new political foothold somewhere while the Democrats, going into 2014, could use another highly visible Latino face. As political appointments go, this one is about as token as it gets.
Sadly, this may be all the Obama administration has to offer Latinos at the moment – and it’s highly unlikely to make much difference in November. Obama has already publicly invoked the iron law of American politics that parties in power generally suffer losses in the mid-terms, which suggests that the president and his party know full well they’re heading for defeat. But there’s a big difference between mid-term loss that keeps the Senate in Democratic hands and a 2010-style “blow-out” that shifts the entire legislative momentum to the GOP. Maybe Obama is content to try to exercise his veto power for the remaining two years of his presidency. The problem? That’s hardly enough to keep anxious Latinos – especially the group’s large bloc of swing voters — patiently waiting in the Democratic fold.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com