WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, aware of news that the U.S. Hispanic population has hit 50 million, is turning his attention on issues key to Hispanics, including education.
Early this week, Obama held a town hall meeting at a Washington, D.C. high school, roughly three miles from the White House, where two-thirds of the students are Hispanic.
The town hall, broadcast by the Spanish-language television network Univision, overlapped with the president’s live address to the nation on Libya, but reportedly drew 2.7 million viewers.
“This is an issue that is critical for the success of America generally,” Obama said. “We already have a situation where one out of five students are Latino in our schools, and when you look at those who are 10 years old or younger, it’s actually one in four.
“So what this means is that our workforce is going to be more diverse; it is going to be, to a large percentage, Latino. And if our young people are not getting the kind of education they need, we won’t succeed as a nation.”
It was the type of center-stage treatment that, when it comes to issues of concern to Hispanics, is usually reserved for immigration.
It comes from a White House keenly aware of its failure to move any significant immigration legislation, and of tough immigration enforcement that has led to a record number of deportations. These factors could seriously affect Obama’s credibility within the Hispanic community just as he needs to hang onto that critical voting bloc for his 2012 re-election bid.
Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics stood at about 64 percent in late February, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And he has his work cut out for him keeping Hispanic support.
Gallup’s weekly tracking average has his approval rating at 51 percent among Hispanics for the week of March 21-27, although that is based on a smaller sample. At the same time last year, Obama’s weekly average among Hispanics was 66 percent.
According to AP-Univision polling last year, Hispanics gave Obama low marks on handling immigration, but still trusted Democrats more than Republicans to handle the issue by more than 2 to 1.
National exit polls showed that 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama in 2008, compared with 31 percent for Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Latinos accounted for more than half of the U.S. population increase over the past decade, and now 1 in 6 Americans is Hispanic, according to the latest Census numbers. Hispanics accounted for all the growth in the youth population in the last decade and make up between 22 percent and 25 percent of the U.S. population under 20.
The administration has tried to court Hispanics through other non-immigration issues before. There was an effort to draw attention to how Obama’s health plan helps Hispanics, who are more likely to be uninsured; and how his push for increased spending on Pell Grants benefits Latino students who can’t afford college.
But much of that work was drowned out by protests last year of his administration’s immigration enforcement policies, and a clamor for him to put more political capital behind comprehensive immigration reform.
Heading into last year’s midterm elections, respondents to a Pew Hispanic Center poll ranked education as a top issue, while immigration lagged behind the cost of living, jobs, health care and crime as major concerns.
“I think (Obama’s town hall) is very significant for the politics of 2012 when you talk about an issue that clearly drives voters,” says Democratic consultant and lobbyist Larry Gonzalez.
In a conference call with reporters last week, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted there are nearly 12 million Latino children in public elementary and secondary schools, making up 22 percent of all pre-K to 12th-grade students.
According to 2009 figures, only one in eight Hispanics, about 13 percent, has a bachelor’s degree.
Republicans have long said Hispanics are more compatible with the GOP’s ideology because Hispanics tend to place a high emphasis on family, religion and education, issues the GOP has campaigned on. Former President George W. Bush reached out to Hispanics and other minorities on education.
Given that history, Obama has little choice but to broaden the scope of the issues he uses to court Hispanic voters “because he simply does not have a good story to tell” on immigration, says Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who advised McCain in his presidential campaign.
“Republicans should see this as an opening to compete for the hearts and souls of Hispanics by also appealing to them on a wider array of issues, including education, social values, economy and national security,” she says.
But Navarro also warns that Republicans could squander the opportunity if they allow the tone of the immigration debate to escalate as it did in 2010.
“Hispanics are just as law-and-order and pro-enforcing the border as other groups, we just don’t want to feel unwelcome,” she says.
At the town hall, Obama praised students who could speak more than one language, encouraged parental involvement even if the parent does not speak English, and called for continued funding for programs to help children become proficient in English. He pointed out that his budget plan puts additional resources into early childhood education, “something that will pay big dividends for the entire society down the road.”