First Lady Michelle Obama help a historic live chat with Latina moms, which I moderated in July, received rave reviews and still has the Latino community buzzing. The Latina moms who participated—Melanie Edwards, Yvette Marquez-Shrapnack, Monica Olivera, and Shirley Rodriguez—are Mamiverse contributors with a passion for a myriad of issues including healthy eating, education, health care, home schooling, and more. The chat lasted half an hour and it went by in the blink of an eye. As the presidential election nears, Latino voters are still left with numerous questions; I’d like to take this opportunity to fill in some of the blanks.
The event was, in my view, a masterful political stroke by the Obama campaign. In thirty minutes the Obamas demonstrated they understood just how important the voices of Latina mothers are going to be this election cycle. As I mentioned during the chat, “as the ‘deciders’ in our Latino households, it will be us moms that have a big say in who the next president of the United States is going to be.” By reaching out proactively to Mamiverse to start the conversation, the Obama team demonstrated their political savvy when it comes to this important demographic within an important demographic.
There was plenty of high praise about the historic nature of the chat; the political importance of the optics of the event, and the easy dynamic of the group. All the Latina moms were real, down-to-earth mamis with valid concerns they wanted to share with the First Lady. By the end, all felt the First Lady had been sincere and had made them feel at home. A strong case had been made as for why President Obama needs to be re-elected for the sake of a better future for their children. But there were some questions, too; concerns regarding the lack of depth in the conversation, and the lack of talk of real solutions to the real economic problems facing Latinos, such as a high unemployment rate and the lack of comprehensive immigration reform.
Yet, part of what made this event so successful was that it was a naturally flowing, unscripted conversation about what matters on a daily basis to real Latina moms. It was also a historic opportunity to have their voices heard directly by the First Lady and by extension, the President of the United States. Mrs. Obama was very engaged, talked to us about her concern for her kids, how she thinks about the kind of world she wants to leave for them, and what opportunities all of America’s kids will have. Any mom out there will tell you, regardless of political affiliation, that is exactly what drives our every move.
Off camera, she also talked about how many times she tells her girls to remember to say please and thank you, and to brush their teeth—to which ALL of us nodded in agreement!
While some may see this as fluff, the power of being heard, of experiencing a personal connection with someone in Mrs. Obama’s position cannot be underestimated. Republicans used to understand this very well as evidenced by George W. Bush’s savvy outreach to Hispanics. He knew that for Latinos, familiarity is key. Mrs. Obama made us all feel like we were part of her familia, and that is essential to gaining, growing and maintaining political support among Latinos.
That is more important now for President Obama than ever before. In this tight election, he cannot afford to lose any ground with Latinos. He won 67% of the Latino vote in 2008 and is on track to gain the same amount if not more. In fact, a newly released Latino Decisions poll has President Obama leading Romney 70% to 22%. Not a good place for a GOP presidential candidate who will need at least 40% of the Latino vote to win the White House.
It hasn’t all been rosy for President Obama. There is no question there has been disappointment among Latinos that President Obama was not able to achieve comprehensive immigration reform like he promised. There has also been much anger that he has presided over record deportations of Latinos. But the majority of Latinos understand two things:
1. Obama faced an obstructionist Republican congress that turned its back on any kind of immigration reform because it would anger conservatives; and
2. The existence of damaging right-wing voices in the GOP hostile to Latinos (Arizona’s SB1070 law, Romney’s “self-deport” comments, Rep. Steve King’s remarks comparing immigrants to dogs, and GOP Kansas State Rep Virgil Peck’s remarks on fixing immigration by shooting immigrants from helicopters like feral pigs), and not one GOP leader who has strongly condemned such voices. Some Republicans now, including former Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, warn their own party they must change their tune.
More importantly, what has helped President Obama with Latinos are the actual policies he has put in place that have helped Latino families:
- Health Care Reform gives 9 million Latinos and millions of Hispanic children with pre-existing conditions life-saving coverage.
- The Recovery Act has kept 1.9 million Latinos out of poverty, and the President’s actions to create 4.5 million jobs include millions of new jobs for Latinos.
- The President has passed 18 tax cuts for small businesses that benefit hundreds of thousands of Latino entrepreneurs.
- Obama’s support for Pell Grants gives 150,000 additional Hispanic students the chance to go to college.
- A $5 billion investment in the Head Start program benefits hundreds of thousands of Latino children who comprise over 1/3 of Head Start participants.
- Extensions of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and Unemployment Benefits help 5.4 million Latino families including 11.3 million Latino children, and nearly one million Hispanics who didn’t lose their unemployment benefits.
- Facing the ‘Party of NO,’ President Obama has given temporary relief to almost one million ‘DREAMers’—undocumented kids who came here through no fault of their own and know no other country to call home. They will be able to study or join the military without the threat of deportation.
Is this enough to ensure Latinos will come out to vote for President Obama? I think so, but we will know for sure in November. One thing is for certain though: Michelle Obama—in half an hour—empowered some powerful Latina mothers to engage their families, friends, and influential networks to be advocates for this president’s re-election. That will go a long way.