Obama to Latinos: “Build a Movement, Keep Heat on Me”

In a speech that touched on the economy and the debt crisis and acknowledged Latinos’ frustration with lack of federal comprehensive immigration reform, a mostly solemn and tired-looking President Barack Obama urged audience Hispanics on Monday to “keep the heat on me,” but not forget that it is Republicans who bear the blame for Latino issues not being addressed on a federal level.

President Barack Obama's Latin America Tour

The President, who spoke at a luncheon at the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference and received a standing ovation as he entered a ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington DC, began the speech by pointing to his administration’s major Latino-related accomplishments: the appointments of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and Hilda Solis to a Cabinet-level position (as Secretary of Labor), both Latino firsts.

He reiterated his position on the ongoing battle between him and Republican leaders of Congress on how to wrangle the national debt, saying that its outcome will affect already recession-pummeled Latinos, among whom unemployment stands at 13%.

“Every day, NCLR and your affiliates hear from families figuring out how to stretch every dollar a little bit further, what sacrifices they’ve got to make, how they’re going to budget only what’s truly important,” Obama said. “So they should expect the same thing from Washington. The best way to take on our deficit is with a balanced approach, where the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay their fair share, too.”

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Obama told the audience of 2,000 who packed the ballroom to see him in person and watched via life feed in additional rooms, that he had kept campaign promises to improve the lives of Latinos via health care reform and other initiatives. But it was when he touched on immigration, echoing NCLR president Janet Murguia’s introductory remarks that Obama and Latinos “had unfinished business,” that the audience came alive.

He spoke of the “heartbreak” of failing to get the Dream Act passed in the Senate after a historic pass in the House and seemed to allude to record number of deportations during his administration by saying that he “swore to uphold the laws on the books,” and “we are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way.”

When he then referred to calls by Latino leaders including Illinois Sen. Luis Gutierrez to stop deportations by executive order, saying “I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,” the audience began chanting “Yes, you can! Yes, you can!”, tweaking his campaign slogan of Yes, We Can!”

A markedly drawn Obama, sporting bags under his eyes, laughed wrily and looked down. “Right now dealing with Congress, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting, I promise you, and not just on immigration reform,” he said to appreciative laughter. “But that’s not how our system works. That’s not how our democracy functions. That’s not how our constitution is written.

“So let’s be honest here,” he said, referring to stonewalling Republicans, “I need a dance partner and the dancer floor is empty.”

He asked Latinos to “keep building a movement for change outside of Washington, one they can’t stop, and I will be there every step of the way. I will keep up the fight.”

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But he also urged Hispanics to “to feel free to keep the heat on me, keep the heat on Democrats, but you should know that the Democrats and your President are with you. Don’t get confused about that. Remember who it is that we need to move in order to change the law.”

At a press conference following the speech, NCLR president Janet Murguia said she was disappointed in Obama’s speech. While crediting him with coming out to the event despite the all-consuming debt crisis negotiations, “we didn’t hear specifics or substance on any action he’s taking to address immigration,” which she said had become the number one issue for Latinos nationwide since Arizonas SB1070, according to NCLR and other polls.