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Why are Progressive Latinos Abandoning Obama?

Why are Progressive Latinos Abandoning Obama?

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When Barack Obama was elected the first Black president of the United States in 2008, it was with 67 percent of the Latino vote that turned out in record numbers (10 million Latinos, 9 percent of voter turnout).

Now Pres. Obama’s approval rating among Latinos has sunk to 48 percent, down from 60 percent in January. The unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent and threatening to climb over the next year is one reason Latinos are abandoning the Obama camp. The other is immigration.

According to mid-September figures, Obama has deported a little over one million undocumented immigrants in two and a half years. The President is on pace to surpass in his first term the 1.6 million immigrants that his predecessor George W. Bush deported in two terms.

Yet, despite Obama’s record-breaking rate of deportations, the President has consistently been in favor of fair immigration reform during his first years in office. Even on the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama promised to pass immigration reform during his first year in office, and although the economic crisis he inherited sidetracked such efforts early in his administration, the President did support the failed DREAM Act bill in 2010. In May of this year, Pres. Obama began his newest push to reform immigration law in El Paso, Texas, saying it was time for Republicans to work with Democrats in providing amnesty for some of the millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for over a decade.

Last month the administration announced that it would drastically loosen its deportation policy, reviewing all the deportations currently being processed and deporting only those individuals who have committed serious crimes or are threats to national security. For all intents and purpose, Pres. Obama’s latest measure protects those undocumented immigrants who would potentially benefit from the DREAM Act, thus circumventing the political gridlock of Congress.

Despite all these gestures and attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the Obama administration is still criticized by the Latino community for what they see as the President’s lack of determination on the issue. Some Latinos are threatening to vote Republican in 2012; most are saying they’ll simply stay home on Election Day.

But this is a dangerous mistake.

I understand the frustration that progressive Latinos feel toward the Obama presidency, and I share in that frustration. I thought Election Night 2008 signaled the coming of a new, more progressive period in the United States, something that was much needed after the conservative mess of the preceding Bush years. I believed the Obama presidency would usher in universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform, education reform, peace and diplomacy overseas, Wall Street reform, environmental protection and clean energy policies, gay rights and so on.

And while some of these changes have come to pass – if only partially – I’m still dissatisfied with the job Obama has done during his first years in the White House. Maybe it’s because his presidency promised so much and has thus far delivered so little by comparison. Maybe I, like most Americans, underestimated the economic crisis the country still finds itself struggling with to this day.

But as progressives – and given our two-party system, no matter how dysfunctional it may be – Latinos, Blacks, women, gays, the youth and the rest of Obama’s political base need to stay by his side, now more than ever. To vote Republican or stay home on Election Day out of sheer frustration would undermine the hopes and dreams – however fanciful they were – that we collectively shared on that chilly Chicago night back in November 2008.

Obama’s first term has been less than stellar, but it has been the most progressive administration the country has seen since Jimmy Carter. (That’s right; more progressive than that of our beloved Bill Clinton.) Political satirist Bill Maher, who often criticizes Obama as a corporatist Democrat, seems to agree with me. On last Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, author Ron Suskind criticized the President for wasting his “big chance” to take the political support he received in 2008 to enforce a progressive agenda. Maher responded:
“I’ve been on that page also, that he kinda let a great opportunity slip away. And yet, when you go down the list of achievements – he did avert a depression; he saved the American automobile industry; got health care passed, I mean, it’s not a perfect bill but neither was social security began, you gotta start somewhere; … Wall Street reform; we have a Consumer [Financial] Protection Bureau; student loans; credit card reform; got the troops out of Iraq; repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; shot Bin Laden in the face; … two women on the Supreme Court – I mean, that’s a pretty impressive list.”
It is an impressive list. We’d be proud of any progressive president who accomplished as much in two terms – more so during his first term, and even more so during the greatest economic recession since World War II. So what keeps us from patting Obama on the back now?

Again, I’m not sure. Maybe we mistook Obama for some kind of superhero, a single man depended upon to do so much in such a short amount of time.

I don’t fault progressive America for wanting so much out of the man we elected into office. It’s our goals and dreams for this country, and our ability to criticize the very people we elect, which make us invaluable members of this democracy. But we cannot allow our ideals to blind us from reality. While we should set high marks for any person we place in the White House, we shouldn’t completely tear down anyone we elect who falls short of those marks. It’s unrealistic and unfair.

America finds itself in the middle of period of intransigent conservatism. Fear and ignorance have pulled the Republican Party to the far right. The ultraconservative fringe of the party has threatened to shutdown government in a desperate plot to secure the White House in 2012. Do you think the Republican Party is willing to push for fair immigration reform? Do you think a Republican president will advocate gay marriage rights? Do you think a Republican member of Congress will push for more extensive health care coverage? Across the board, an overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party has never wavered from its desire to see such reforms passed. But their efforts are blocked at every turn by a Republican Party that will allow none of them to pass in any form, no matter how many millions of Americans these reforms would benefit. This is what’s at stake in 2012.

Barack Obama, it turns out, is not the perfect president we were hoping for. But his record proves him to be an outstanding chief executive. He’s managed to keep the country together – however loosely – during truly divisive times, and he’s held back a wave of conservative politics from taking over the country. I know that many people might argue that conservative politics have already taken over the country, but it’s just not true: DADT has been repealed, immigration reform and gay marriage rights legislation is spreading state by state, and the approval rating for the Republican Party is in the toilet.

Given that a president of the United States is restricted to two terms in office, I’m hoping that Obama will go for broke during his second term. There’ll be nothing holding him back.

As voters and supporters of progressive policies, we must ensure that the President is reelected next year (which is not altogether certain) and that he has enough allies in Congress to support the progressive agenda he’s likely to put forth in his second term.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. has a B.A. in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

Follow Hector on Twitter @HectorLuisAlamo
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