While most of Washington was embroiled in the debt-ceiling drama last month, about 160 Hispanic leaders from across the country filed into the White House one day, largely unnoticed.
For two days, they enjoyed full access to top presidential advisers, Cabinet members and administration officials from across the government. Before the participants left town, they received a glossy 33-page booklet detailing talking points to be shared back home — 1.9 million Hispanics kept out of poverty by the stimulus, $808 million in loans last year to Hispanic small businesses, and an extra $1 billion directed to colleges with large numbers of Hispanic students, to name a few.
The event was part of broader efforts by the White House and Obama’s reelection campaign to rekindle excitement among Hispanic voters, many of whom have turned their backs on the president amid disappointment over his immigration policies. Key to the strategy is shifting voters’ attention beyond the caustic immigration debate with data-driven appeals that show progress in other areas, while arguing that Obama is better on immigration than any of his potential Republican foes.
The tensions — and the administration’s aggressive efforts to soothe them — reached a climax of sorts in a flurry of activity last week, with the administration making a surprise announcement Thursday that it was giving officials discretion to suspend certain deportation cases that have drawn fire from critics, such as ones involving young people brought to the country in early childhood.
The White House move came two days after immigrant advocates delivered tens of thousands of petitions to Obama’s reelection headquarters and other Democratic Party offices demanding an end to the administration’s aggressive deportation policy.
Adding to Democrats’ anxiety are signs that Republicans are trying to take advantage of the strain between Obama and Hispanics.
Crossroads GPS, the pro-GOP group advised by Karl Rove, saturated Spanish-language airwaves in key states last month with ads blasting Obama’s record. And one of the party’s presidential front-runners, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, brings a history of courting Hispanic voters. He even backed a law granting in-state college tuition for many children of illegal immigrants.
The White House outreach strategy underscores the quandary facing Obama and his aides, who are struggling to keep their hold on a voter bloc that was a key piece of the president’s 2008 coalition of minorities, young people and white liberals and is expected to play an even greater role in deciding his reelection.
Administration officials announced last week that they would host Hispanic policy conferences in cities across the country. Some will be in key political battlegrounds — with the first to take place this month in Orlando, home to a large Puerto Rican community that is a prime target for the campaign’s early voter registration efforts.
“I understand the pain that our community is going through,” said Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, who is hosting policy roundtables with Hispanic activists across the country as a top White House liaison to the community. But, she added, “I think it’s amazing how little people know of the good things that this administration has done.”
At her roundtables, Solis distributes handouts describing measures her agency has taken to help Hispanics. At a meeting in Las Vegas this month, she gave out literature about policies designed to improve safety conditions for Hispanic workers. She said other announcements geared toward helping Hispanics would come soon, although she declined to offer specifics.
Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008 after pledging that overhauling immigration policies would be a top priority in his first term. While immigration does not always rank as the No. 1 issue for Hispanics, activists say Obama’s failure to pass legislation granting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, combined with a deportation program that has removed more than 1 million illegal immigrants since 2009, has stirred deep disappointment.
A majority of the Hispanic voters surveyed by the nonpartisan polling group Latino Decisions said they know an illegal immigrant, and one-fourth said they know someone who is facing deportation or has been deported.
Obama’s job approval rating among Hispanics has plummeted since its high mark in April 2009, according to Gallup, from 85 percent to 49 percent this month.
Administration officials say their outreach initiatives — many of which began in 2009 — are not coordinated with the campaign.
Still, the efforts coincide with recent moves by Obama’s Chicago-based reelection campaign to begin ramping up its grass-roots Hispanic operations in key states.
The campaign recently named Solis’s former chief of staff, longtime Denver strategist Katherine Archuleta, as its national political director, touting her as the highest-ranking Latina in the organization.
Archuleta and campaign manager Jim Messina met this month with Hispanic organizers and volunteers in Las Vegas, and next month Archuleta plans to hold similar meetings in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico.
Andres Ramirez, a Las Vegas-based Democratic strategist who met this month with administration and campaign officials to discuss Hispanic outreach, said a “hyper-obsession” with immigration issues has led many voters to overlook other accomplishments — including the appointment of a Puerto Rican woman to the Supreme Court.
“Most people forget that he appointed Sonia Sotomayor and how big of a deal that was,” Ramirez said.
In a twist, some activists think the cultural pull of immigration issues has worked to Obama’s benefit, because many Hispanics can relate to his being forced to defend his citizenship by revealing his long-form birth certificate.
“They themselves have been targeted, and they know what it’s like to have to prove yourself,” said Obama campaign volunteer Joe Perez, a 67-year-old veteran who is canvassing Hispanic neighborhoods in Greeley, Colo.
Several leading Hispanic activists said the level of outreach from Obama’s White House far surpasses that of previous administrations, including that of President George W. Bush, who heavily courted Hispanics and won 40 percent of that vote in his 2004 reelection, unusually high for a Republican.
Obama’s White House staffers have showered Hispanic community leaders with phone calls, event invitations, and weekly e-mails that have been known to include profiles of lesser-known Hispanic appointees. The White House has lavished attention on Hispanic media.
The White House has lavished attention on Hispanic media, dispatching Obama and other administration officials to frequent appearances on Univision and Telemundo and inviting Hispanic bloggers to coveted encounters with Obama and senior advisers. Obama has sat for some 30 interviews with Hispanic news outlets — including one to be featured this fall in Latina magazine. In video aired during Univision’s annual “Premio lo Nuestro,” a People’s Choice Awards-style music show, Obama rolled his R’s as he peppered his feel-good message with Spanish phrases.
But keeping Hispanics enthusiastic has gotten more difficult. They have been hit harder than non-Hispanic whites in the recession, with unemployment in that group topping 11 percent and home foreclosures devastating Hispanic-heavy neighborhoods in Nevada and Florida.
And, despite frequent efforts to blame Republicans for blocking an immigration bill, many Hispanics wonder why the president didn’t push harder when his party ran Congress.
“There’s a lot of outreach, but I think what people are still getting frustrated with is, okay, where are the outcomes in terms of policy?” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and a regular participant in meetings with top White House officials.
“The White House feels they have done all this work in other areas on the economy that they feel has benefited Latinos just like it’s benefited most of the country,” he said. “But it hasn’t been perceived that way in the community.”