In the midst of increasingly frantic debt limit negotiations, it is telling that President Barack Obama took the time to speak at the NCLR Conference. With the 2012 campaign season revving up, Obama's willingness to take time out from the furious negotiations occurring on Capitol Hill to speak before a capacity crowd of Hispanic leaders shows that he understands exactly how important the Hispanic vote will be.
The stakes were high for the president's speech. Secure Communities and the deportation of DREAM Act students have dulled some of the initial luster that the president had when he first took office. That is not to say that the president has not been deaf to these complaints. The president has advised the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to show greater discretion in what types of undocumented immigrants to deport. DHS has also created an internal working group within the agency to find ways to improve the many problems associated with Secure Communities.
Today, Obama talked up his accomplishments with placing Hispanics in his administration, the recent White House Hispanic Policy Day and the work he is doing for the country as a whole. He spoke of opportunity, the economy, the recession, tax relief, trade and the work facing his administration. He spoke of sacrifice, the debt limit, the economy, energy, the rich, the poor and everything in between. The crowd sat in deferential silence as he discussed the difference between his candidacy and his presidency.
Only when he began to talk about immigration did the crowd come alive with a monstrous roar. The speech became one of the economic benefit of immigrants, one that sought to bridge the divide between what is and what should be for the immigrant population in the country. When talking about bypassing Congress to grant deferrals for immigrants, he was met with raucous chants of "yes we can."
The president held his own, taking the full brunt of the crowd and spoke frankly: "Keep the heat on me, keep the heat on the Democrats," he told the crowd. "But know this we are with you. And never forget who we need to move: Republicans."
This, surprisingly was also met with applause. The speech went on predictably from there, ending with polite applause and the sporadic chanting of DREAM activists to stop the deportation of DREAMers.
This speech was no game-changer. The president has always (mostly) said the right things on immigration. The problem has always been the expectations of what the president should do and what he can do. The tension of what people want from him and the reality of his office has bedeviled him for his entire presidency. This remains true after his speech today. The president knows that the he cannot win without Hispanics coming out big for him. So yes, he has checked the NCLR box, he has shown his willingness to engage. But now he has a little under a year to deliver.