If there is an area of critical concern to the president as he begins the long summer slog toward reelection, it is making certain that he touches the right chord with Latino voters, says former Secretary of Energy and Transportation Federico Peña. Ranking close behind in importance is proving to all voters that, despite what they might hear between now and November that, in a quantifiable way, the nation is better off today than when he took office.
Sitting last week for a comprehensive question-answer session at La Voz offices, Peña told the paper’s editorial board that the economy is dramatically and quantifiably improved from the day President Obama took office.
“Twenty-six straight months of job creation — more than four million jobs, a booming auto industry, tax cuts for small business and middle class wage earners,” are undeniable Peña says. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the $787 billion stimulus bill — helped save the jobs of police, firefighters and teachers, says the co-chair of the president’s national campaign.
While Peña touts the president’s three and a half-year record on the economy, he also acknowledges that there is still more work to do in getting more Americans back to work.
When the president took office in January 2009, unemployment sat at 7.6 percent. Nearly 600,000 jobs were lost his first month in office, the worst job loss in 34 years. The Department of Labor calculated a three-month job loss leading into the Obama administration at 1.8 million and 3.6 million for the entire year. Economists — from the left and right — were uncertain where the U.S. economy was headed.
So fragile was the 2009 economy that even the ultra-conservative and frequent critic of the president, the Washington Times, was editorializing that “the economy needs a quick injection.” With the economy teetering on the edge of uncertainty, it even suggested a one-time government payout to all consumers to jump start the economy.
Dressed casually in sport coat, khakis and suede wingtips, the former Denver mayor spoke confidently about the president. “This president knows that he can’t be complacent about the economy,” Peña says. “There is still a lot of work that has to be done.”
And much of that work needs to be done in Colorado, a swing state that the president must win to reclaim the White House.
Today, Colorado’s unemployment rate sits at 7.9 percent, below the national average of 8.1 percent but slightly higher than a month ago. The administration is hopeful that the warmer summer weather, which includes seasonal jobs and more construction, drops the jobless rate statewide.
But while the economy remains the nation’s number one issue, education — particularly to Latinos — is also very important. And, Peña says the president is working on that front.
“Unlike Gov. Romney, the president wants to invest in, not gut education,” he says. Punctuating the air with hand gestures, Peña says the president knows that a good economy is dependent on a good, solid educational system. “President Obama has made a commitment to education — from Head Start to higher education.”
In Colorado, there are more than 8,000 Hispanic youngsters enrolled in Head Start programs. “He wants Hispanic children and others to be better prepared for kindergarten.”
The president, Peña says, also believes in providing money for Pell Grants, which nearly 40 percent of all Hispanic college students are currently relying on. He also wants to cap repayment of student loans at no more than 10 percent of monthly income. “Borrowing from your parents,” as Romney has suggested to financially strapped college students, is not a solution.
The president is also committed to passage of the Dream Act, legislation that would provide in-state tuition for undocumented Latino college students along with a path toward citizenship. “Gov. Romney said he would veto the Dream Act, calling it “a handout.”
“The idea of giving them in-state tuition credits or other special benefits I find contrary to the idea of a nation of law,” Romney said in a presidential debate.”
Further separating the president from the presumed Republican nominee are their positions on Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070. It essentially gives all state law enforcement officers a blank check to demand immigration documents from anyone suspected of being undocumented. The administration has challenged it before the Supreme Court. Gov. Romney has praised it.
But while the president has taken popular positions on a number of issues important to Latinos, his administration has also arrested and deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE has also been accused by immigrant rights organizations of breaking up families in raids in Colorado and across the country.
While acknowledging both issues, Peña also defended the administration. “The president wants comprehensive immigration reform,” he says. “But he cannot get one single Republican in the Senate to join him.” The clout of the party’s right wing, including the burgeoning Tea Party faction, has made it impossible to take anything but an extreme position on immigration, Peña says.
“Just a few years ago,” Peña says, there were eight Senate Republicans who were ready to vote for comprehensive immigration reform. Today there are none.”
In defending the administration on immigration arrests and deportations, Peña says, “you cannot ignore the laws.” But, he says the administration has placed the emphasis on those immigrants with serious felony records. “At least once a month you read in the paper that an undocumented immigrant has committed a serious crime.”
“You can’t ignore those things,” Peña says. But the administration has also urged ICE officers to use “discretion” before making arrests that would potentially break up of families.
Comprehensive immigration reform isn’t going to solve all the issues associated with people coming into the country, particularly from Mexico, Peña says. But it is a more pragmatic and realistic solution than Gov. Romney’s idea of voluntary self deportation.
An invitation to meet with the La Voz editorial board has been extended to Gov. Romney’s Colorado office.