By Angelo FalcÃ³n
It’s official. Latinos no longer exist.
Well, that’s the case if you go by President Obama’s very first State of the Union address last night.
The President made no reference to the Latino community, nor did he say anything about Latin America or the political status of Puerto Rico. Most Latinos live in cities, but the President made only one reference to the “inner-city” and said nothing about urban policy (whatever happened to Obama’s urban policy guru appointee Adolfo Carrion?). But to be fair, indirectly, when he chastised the Supreme Court majority about their Citizens United ruling and how it opens the doors for unfettered corporate (and foreign) intervention in American politics, he was probably thinking of Hugo Chavez (and it was nice to see Justice Sotomayor sitting next to a grimacing Justice Alito). Hell, the President didn’t even mention Guantanamo or the 2010 Census!
This, of course, is a totally unfair way to look at the State of the Union speech, because there is some evidence that Latinos do, in fact, exist. And, as the first Black President, he’s got to be careful not to bring too much attention to suspect populations like ours, especially with all the criticisms that have been heaped on him lately. As he triangulated and checked off boxes in his State of the Union, the President was, I am sure, factoring Latinos into everything he spoke about last night.
For those looking for a strong statement in support of comprehensive immigration reform, the speech was a big disappointment. The President explained that, “we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders, and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nations. In the end, it’s our ideals, our values that built America, values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe, values that drive our citizens still.” That was it.
On civil rights, the President pointed out that, “We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution, the notion that we’re all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law, you should be protected by it, if you adhere to our common values, you should be treated no different than anyone else . . . We must continually renew this promise. My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination . . . We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate.” That was it.
But on the big picture issues, the questions are how do they impact on the Latino community and how will the Obama Administration engage our community in addressing them. His big theme was job creation and getting across the message that he is listening to the American people on jobs as the priority issue. He outlined a number of tax breaks, investments in education and use of the stimulus monies to create new jobs, recognizing that “these steps won’t make up for the 7 million jobs that we’ve lost over the last two years.” Latinos, by the way, are disproportionately represented among those 7 million.
One of the President’s main messages was to demonstrate how he would be distancing himself from Wall Street and connecting more with Main Street. His call for fees for the biggest banks to recover the federal bailout funding received a standing ovation, as did his plan to use $30 million that the Wall Street banks have repaid to get community banks to make more loans to small businesses and his call for serious financial reform.
But there was a contradictory quality to the various initiatives the President outlined. He proposed new programs that would require new spending, while at the same time saying that he is “prepared to freeze government spending for three years.” The President also threw in a number of initiatives that looked like caving in to his opposition. Tax cuts, “pay as you go” legislation, building nuclear power plants, investing in clean coal, and so on. He announced the ending of the Iraq War by August, one the one hand, and the ramping up of the Afghan War, on the other.
The State of the Union also spoke to efforts to thwart terrorism, comprehensive climate and energy legislation, plans to double exports, the recommendations of his middle class task force, transparency of Congressional earmarks, and even mentioned his continued support for passage of the health insurance reform legislation.
In terms of the politics, the President used this speech to reposition himself differently with the Republicans. He, in the mold of Bill Clinton, sought to co-opt some Republican programs, as well as trying to push Republicans into a corner on issues such as taxing the banks, financial reform, and on the most popular aspects of health care reform. The political paralysis engendered by the filibuster was also highlighted by the President in an attempt to put additional pressure on the Republicans to cooperate.
On both the policy and political aspects of the State of the Union, the Latino community faces many challenges. By being treated publicly like a mistress by the President, Latinos remain almost invisible in these policy debates. This means relying on indirect routes to participation with the Obama Administration and the Congress, and being in the unenviable position of having to trust the President and Congressional leaders when there has been so little to show for doing so in the past. This also means continuing to rely on an “insider” approach to politics in the beltway, while all the Latino base in the barrios and communities throughout the country (and Puerto Rico) see are political stalemates, corruption and secrecy (can you see secrecy?).
This President has appointed the greatest number of Latinos to senior positions in the White House and the rest of the federal government of any President. On the policy issues raised by the President, how will these Latinos within the Administration be working and organizing themselves to assure that the needs of our community are being seriously addressed? At 8 percent, Latinos are probably the most underrepresented community in federal government employment, and so our presence in day to day policy making and implementation in Washington, DC is severely limited. Can the Latino political appointees find ways to compensate for this lack of presence?
On the politics, will the President give some priority to including the Latino leadership in the development of strategies at the highest level, or continue to dole out generalities through a series of teleconferences and “briefings”? What role will the Democratic Party be playing to assure the Latino community that it is no longer taking it for granted? But, most importantly, what will the Latino political and civic leadership be doing to make sure that our community’s voices are heard loud and clear by President Obama and Congressional leadership?
If the level of the discussion on these questions at the recent highly regarded 2010 Latino State of the Union forum by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is any indication, we may not be quite ready for primetime yet. If that’s the case, then we could be blowing a historic opportunity for change big time.
Angelo FalcÃ³n is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.