WASHINGTON — Two weeks before elections in which Democrats in several states are nervous that depressed turnout by Latino voters could cost them their jobs, President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed an executive order to improve Hispanic children's educational opportunities.
Obama's order appeared to be, at least in part, a bid to rally Latinos behind Democrats and him this election season. If Latino voters sit out the elections, that'll hurt Democrats the most, because most Latinos traditionally back Democrats. This could be of particular consequence in close contests this year in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington state.
A survey that the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center released this month found that education, jobs and health care rank as the top issues for registered Latino voters. Immigration came in fifth, behind federal budget deficits.
Nearly two years after Obama was elected, legislation that would give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship is going nowhere in Congress. The narrower DREAM Act, which would allow young illegal immigrants who serve in the military or attend college to seek citizenship, also is stalled.
Further, the grim economy is frustrating Latino voters just as it's frustrated all Americans. Latinos make up roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population and 9 percent of eligible voters.
However, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the elections had nothing to do with the executive order, noting Latino dropout rates.
"It's the right thing to do, not because of the political calendar," Gibbs said.
A mariachi band played in the White House Grand Foyer as Obama entered the East Room before an audience of Hispanic-American advocates. There he signed the order renewing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
The program, an effort to determine the causes of the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their peers and to work to address them, began under President George H.W. Bush, and continued and expanded under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Despite two decades of focused efforts, only 50 percent of Hispanic children graduate from high school within four years, compared with three-fourths of all incoming freshmen.
Obama said that Latinos accounted for more than one in five U.S. students and were more likely to attend low-performing schools, be in larger classes, drop out or arrive at college underprepared.
"This is not just a Latino problem, this is an American problem . . . we will all fall behind together," he said, adding that there isn't just a moral aspect but also "an economic imperative" to improve Latino students' performances.
The president didn't mention voter turnout. He called on Congress to pass the DREAM Act and told the Hispanic advocates that his approach is about "giving you more say in the policies that affect your lives."
"Immigration reform is high on our list," said Rudy Lopez, the national field director and political director of the advocacy group Center for Community Change, "but we also want good schools for our kids and jobs." Lopez said the executive order was "a gesture," and "a good thing." Nevertheless, he doesn't expect Latino turnout this year to approach 2008 or 2006 levels.
The Pew survey found that 65 percent of Latino registered voters plan to support Democrats in their congressional elections, and 22 percent Republicans.
The survey of 1,375 Latino adults, including 618 registered voters, was conducted Aug. 17-Sept. 19. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points for registered voter responses.
Jorge Mursuli, the president of Democracia USA, a nonpartisan Hispanic civic engagement and voter registration group, said few campaigns focused sufficiently on Hispanic turnout this year and that some Democrats ran away from the issue of immigration because it was so polarizing.
"Without the investment from his party, what most Hispanics are going to know is he made a promise he didn't keep,'' he said of Obama. "I think Latinos are unlikely to significantly participate as much because of this lack of investment."
In the open Senate race in Florida, Mursuli said, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and independent Gov. Charlie Crist haven't connected well with Hispanic voters. Republican Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, opposes liberalizing immigration policy and may take a conservative stance on government programs and spending than many Hispanic voters would want. However, Mursuli said, "In the absence of information, people who are determined to vote are going to go 'eeny, meeny, miney, moe' and go with a Hispanic name."
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