Policy Summits Or Campaign Strategy? The Obama Road Show

By Tony Castro

No one is calling it the Obama Administration’s Latino Strategy — not yet — but it is coming off just the same.

The White House says the Hispanic Community Action Summits are about policy, not politics

This week, administration officials along with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — the Obama re-election campaign’s leading Latino spokesman — hosted what was billed as the “White House Hispanic Community Action Summit” in Los Angeles, meeting with hundreds of local leaders to talk about issues important to the country’s Hispanic community.

It was at least the 18th such daylong regional gathering in more than a dozen states held by the White House since last summer, leading up to this year’s presidential campaign in which the Latino vote in most of those states has been earmarked as being critical for both party’s chances.

Officials understandably have denied that the summits are political. Jose A. Rico, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence, says the meetings are “about policy, not politics.”

The administration maintains that the Hispanic Community Action Summits are supposed to provide a way for the Latino electorate, who now number more than 54 million, to have a voice in shaping public policy.

The summits have focused on five major areas: immigration; health care; jobs and the economic recovery; police and community relations; and education.

At Thursday’s meeting, held at a learning academy named after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged the slow pace of the nation’s economic recovery, but maintained that the country’s steady job growth benefits Hispanics.

“When President Obama became president of the United States, we had gone to the point where the United States of America had fallen into what was going to be the second Great Depression,” Salazar said.

“We know we came out of a ditch, but we feel good about where we are and we recognize —the president recognizes — that we still have a long ways to go.”

Critics say the summits are yet another sign that the Obama administration is courting Latino voters in key states where the increasing Hispanic vote could hold the balance of power, especially in a close election.

A recent Latino Decisions poll showed that while the president’s approval rating among Hispanic voters stands at 70 percent, only 43 percent of those surveyed said they are sure they will cast ballots for him in November.

This falloff, said analysts, is due to the fact that Latinos have been disproportionately hard hit by the recession, with household wealth plummeting 66 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The Hispanic unemployment rate of 10.7 percent is also higher than the national rate of 8.3 percent.

In 2008, Obama received two thirds of Latino votes cast, 25 percentage points more than John Kerry got four years earlier.

In this election year, the White House chose Villaraigosa, the highest profile Latino politician in the country and his leading Hispanic surrogate in 2008, to be the permanent chair of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. The Los Angeles mayor is also a co-chair of Obama’s re-election campaign.

Analysts say that the four swing states where Latino votes have the greatest influence in this year’s election are Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado, all of which Bush won in 2004 and Obama carried in 2008.

According to Ruy Teixera, a Senior Fellow in the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the most critical states for Obama are Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

“If Obama does manage to hold them in addition to the five ‘easiest’ Midwest/Rust Belt states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa), he would likely be only two electoral votes short of victory, even without Ohio or any of the New South states (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia),” Teixera wrote in The New Republic.

[Photo by whitehouse.gov]

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