december coverDr Mr. President

Let me start with a quick story.

About four years ago, I was on a train from San Diego to Los Angeles when I struck up a conversation with the person next to me. José Gonzalez was, at the time, a 39-year-old man who had run away from home. Born in Mexico, José came here illegally as a teenager, became legal, and then became a U.S. citizen. I was on my way to a dinner that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was hosting for Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Hearing this, José shared with me his profound sense of disappointment over all that Fox had promised and what little he had delivered. As a human rights activist who championed the cause of Mexico’s beleaguered indigenous population, José was upset at Fox’s failure to create more jobs so that Mexicans like him wouldn’t have to continue to flee the country to feed their families. With a hint of disgust, José called the Mexican president a mentiroso---a liar. When we arrived at our destination, I asked my fellow traveler if there was any message he’d like me to pass on to Vicente Fox.

José thought about it, and then said: “Yeah, tell him what a shame!”

Now, Mr. President, I’m making it my personal mission---in my columns, speeches, radio and TV commentary---to ask my fellow Latinos: How’s that hope and change working for you? And, for many, the answer is: “Not so good.”

When, in the 2008 election, two-thirds of Latino voters cast their lots for you (about 7 million votes, in all) even the most blindly loyal Democrat in the bluest of states had to admit that those voters were giving you the benefit of the doubt. Now, more than fifteen months into your presidency, all the Latino community has left are doubts. They were warned. As an Illinois Senator, you were---as Dolores Huerta put it during the primary in support of her candidate, Hillary Clinton---a “Johnny come lately” to Latino causes. Your opponent, Republican John McCain, had the exact opposite reputation. McCain had serious “street cred” with Latinos. In fact, as you may know, more than once, the National Council of La Raza recognized McCain as an advocate for Latinos, at significant political cost with his own party’s conservative base. And it was McCain’s name that was on a sweeping immigration reform bill that would have given millions of illegal immigrants a pathway to earned legal status.

Yet, in the end, just as they have in the last 13 presidential elections dating back to the 1960 “Viva Kennedy” campaign, the majority of Latinos voted for the Democratic candidate. In the last 50 years, there have been high water marks for that support (Bill Clinton in 1996) and low water marks (John Kerry in 2004). But the outcome is always the same. One big factor in all this: The majority of Latinos are Mexican-Americans, and they tend to stand by the Democratic Party brand like their grandmothers stood by their favorite brand of laundry detergent all those years. In 2008, you were the beneficiary of that loyalty. You cruised into the White House on a parade float of high hopes and even higher expectations. Now, it’s time to take stock and figure out what you’ve delivered and what you’ve dodged.

Let’s start with the issues. As you may already know, polls show that the top concerns for most Latinos are the economy, education, and health care. But we do have other interests, like foreign policy and foreign wars. Our sons and daughters enlist at a higher rate than most ethnic groups. And in doing so, they carry on a proud tradition of Latinos serving in the armed forces that goes back to the Revolutionary War. So we care quite a bit about where this country invests blood and treasure.

Economy: You didn’t get around to creating jobs until near the end of your first year. Meanwhile, unemployment ballooned to double-digits under your watch. You’d like to blame that on George W. Bush, and Lord knows you’ve tried to do that every chance you get. But we’re not buying it. You’re the president now, and you seem to be out of ideas on how to bring more jobs to the American people.

Grade: C

Education: To your credit, you took on those self-interested teachers unions and educational bureaucrats with your administration’s “Race to The Top” initiative, which attempts holds teachers accountable for student performance. Every president since George H.W. Bush has given lip service to combating what the White House calls “The Crisis in Hispanic Education,” and yet the crisis has only gotten worse.
Grade: B +

Health Care: You backed a government-financed public option to provide health insurance for the poor. But then, amid resistance from Republicans and conservative Democrats, you abandoned it. You failed to address the costs of prescription drugs and other medical services. You wasted time, made enemies and held out for the whole loaf when you could have gotten half. The first rule for politicians is the same as it is for doctors: “First, do no harm.” You forgot that. Even though Congress eventually passed a health care reform bill, it was at great cost to the country and our political system.
Grade: B -

Foreign Affairs: While shepherding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, you dramatically increased troop strength in Afghanistan. We understand why you settled on that course of action, but we don’t agree with it. Like a majority of Americans, we’re unclear on the mission and so we’d prefer that you pull back most of our troops from Afghanistan and strategically pursue the kind of smaller footprint strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden and others.
Grade: C

Appointments: This was your strong suit. You’re already on track to name more Latinos to top posts than any of your predecessors, including George W. Bush, who is widely acknowledged to have had the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history as relates to Latinos. Bush nominated 34 Latinos to senior positions that required Senate confirmation. So far, you’ve nominated 50. Very impressive. You got off to a good start by naming three Latinos to the Cabinet: Rep. Hilda Solis as Labor Secretary, Sen. Ken Salazar as Interior Secretary, and Gov. Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary. (Richardson withdrew after he became part of a FBI investigation into political corruption in New Mexico, but he wasn’t charged with wrongdoing). Latino groups asked you to replace Richardson with another Latino. You had other plans, choosing former Washington governor Gary Locke. Nonetheless, you redeemed yourself in grand style when you nominated federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. When Sotomayor was confirmed as the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court justice, you bought a lot of goodwill for yourself and the Democratic Party. It could last for a generation or more.
Grade: A

Immigration: Frankly, this has been a major disappointment. You made promises, Mr. President. And you failed to keep them. You spent the first year in office repeatedly teasing us with the possibility that you might eventually get around to this issue. You did it directly and through surrogates such as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, your point person on immigration reform---or rather the lack thereof. Every few months or so, Napolitano would go out to speak to “the National Association of Latino This” or “the American Organization of Latino That” and assure the crowds that you had not forgotten them and that you fully intended to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform. Let’s not forget that, while addressing the annual meeting of the National Council of La Raza in San Diego in July 2008 as a presidential candidate, you promised to make such reform “a top priority in my first year as president.”

We should have been more suspicious. We should have asked ourselves two questions: Why did virtually every appearance before a Latino group, either by Napolitano or yourself, produce one of these assurances? And, more importantly, why didn’t we ever hear about Napolitano or you bringing up the topic to non-Latino audiences? Allow me to provide the answers: Because, while you and your cabinet officials were fine with pandering to Latino voters, you realized that mentioning the topic of immigration reform to other audiences could well backfire. That was a giveaway that should have called into question your commitment to the issue.

After all, when the subject was health care reform -- an issue that is, obviously, much closer to your heart given the unfortunate death of your mother and what her experience with health insurance companies taught you about a broken system -- you had no trouble spreading the reform message to all sorts of audiences. During the tense negotiation for the health care bill, you went “all-in” by twisting arms and giving away perks.

Yet you didn’t lift a finger to restart the immigration debate. Ironically, the lengths to which you were willing to go to pass health care reform backfired and only further angered immigration reform proponents who wondered why you couldn’t be just as passionate about their issue. Latinos did not react well to how quickly you threw illegal immigrants under the bus during that debate. What’s worse, you brought it upon yourself. Immigration reform activists warned you to tackle immigration before health care. Otherwise, the activists said, concerns that illegal immigrants would somehow get benefits could trip up the health care effort.

They were right. When you gave an address to Congress in September of last year on the need to pass health care reform and included the now-famous line insisting that it simply isn’t true illegal immigrants would receive benefits under the health care reform measures currently being debated, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., famously yelled out: “You lie!” And then, in response to Wilson’s outburst, you and your administration were bullied into lurching to the right just to quell the criticism. White House spokesman Reid Cherlin quickly came forward to assure reporters that the administration’s plan would bar illegal immigrants from purchasing health coverage through a proposed public insurance exchange and require verification of immigration status. So, thanks to Obamacare, illegal immigrants could end up with fewer health care options than they have now. And you tried to pass this off as reform?

Yet, for the most part, Latinos still held out hope that you were a man of your word and that you understood what it meant for Latinos to hand over, in the 2008 presidential election, two-thirds of our votes to a virtual unknown with a scant record of serving the Latino community---especially one running against someone like McCain, who had constantly gone to bat for Latinos and even co-sponsored what would have been landmark immigration reform legislation.Be that as it may, Latinos waited for you to at least begin the conversation on immigration reform by setting forth publicly, for all to see---the principles that you believed should guide the discussion and the goals you’d like to see accomplished. And they waited. And waited. And waited.

Meanwhile, Napolitano was busy illustrating again that the low-hanging fruit on the immigration reform tree is enforcement. She continued the workplace raids started during the Bush administration, admittedly with a different focus as she intended to crack down more on employers while still hauling away her share of illegal immigrants. She also launched a crackdown on criminal aliens---those illegal immigrants who go on to commit more serious crimes such as robbery, rape, assault and even murder once in the United States. Okay. We have no trouble with going after criminals or shady employers who exploit workers. What we do have a problem with is the same “enforcement only” approach to the problem that Republicans tried to get away with in 2006 and 2007. It didn’t work for them, and it won’t work for you.

Again, we should have picked up on the clues, and figured out that you really didn’t care about the immigration issue. Then came your first State of the Union address, and there was no more hiding it. One of your top priorities had been reduced to 37 words. That’s how much space you devoted to immigration reform in that address to Congress and the nation. Here’s what you said: “And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders, enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.” We noted that you avoided controversial phrases such as “comprehensive immigration reform” or “earned legal status.” Instead, you emphasized positive phrases like “secure our borders” and “enforce our laws.” What a disappointment that speech was for many Latinos. But it also illuminating. It told us in no uncertain terms that---despite all the promises and delay tactics ---those of us who want immigration reform are on our own.

So many of us decided to turn up the heat on the White House and Congress to move on the issue by planning what would be a massive march on Washington on March 21. It worked. About two weeks before the event, which was expected to draw an estimated 100,000 people to the National Mall in support of comprehensive immigration reform, things started happening. We started seeing reports of a new immigration bill being cobbled together in the Senate by Chuck Schumer of New York and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. A few days later, there were more reports -- this time, of you meeting with Schumer and Graham and pledging support for their bill. Then, a few days later, you met for more than an hour with about 15 immigration reform advocates in the White House and insisted you were with them and pledged to work toward immigration reform.

This time, however, the activists weren’t having any of it. Tired of lip service, they demanded specifics. According to a source in the room, they reminded you that this issue impacts real people who continue to suffer the longer we wait to fix a system we all acknowledge is broken. As you left the meeting, you declared your support for immigration reform to be “unwavering” and also pledged support for the Schumer-Graham bill. That kind of support matters. Many lawmakers in Congress know that the system needs fixing. But many of them are not leaders. So they’re looking for leadership on this issue from the White House.

A few days after that meeting, ABC News’ Jake Tapper asked Graham, during an interview, to assess your commitment to immigration reform. Graham didn’t mince words:

“This idea that the president has been unwavering on immigration doesn’t really pass the smell test. One line in the State of the Union that was unnoticeable is not unwavering. A hastily called meeting Thursday because of a rally next weekend is not unwavering. It is CYA. Unwavering is sending two cabinet members over to the House and the Senate two hours a day for two months with dozens of senators trying to write a bill. That’s what President Bush did. President Obama has not been unwavering on immigration reform. He has pretty much ignored it.”

Mr. President, Graham isn’t the only one to have noticed that. And understand: when you ignored immigration reform, you ignored the millions Latinos who voted for you. Sure, those voters have interests and concerns that go far beyond immigration but you didn’t know that when you campaigned for their votes. You went before voters talking about you were doing to do something that you never had any intention of doing. The next few months will be critical. You’ll have more defections from conservative Democrats on immigration, just like you did on health care. Yet, you were determined enough to push through that initiative against almost impossible odds because you believed it was the right thing to do. Fixing our immigration system is also the right thing to do. Whether or not your heart is in this issue is no longer relevant. We’re past that. There will be legislation proposed in Congress, and a call to lead. Whether you answer that call is up to you.

Just like whether Latino voters turn out for Democrats in November---not to mention for your reelection in two years---is entirely up to them. On immigration reform, we’ll have to wait and see how your presidency is judged.
Grade: Incomplete.

Add up that report card, and you can see, Mr. President, why many Latinos take the view that you’ve been a better-than-average president as far as their community and its issues are concerned. And yet, at the same time, you haven’t been nearly as good as advertised. There is still time to be better.

In the 2008 election, pundits were assuring everyone who would listen that Latinos would never support an African-American candidate for president. Supposedly, there are all these tensions between blacks and browns, many of which came to down to what happens when people feel as if they have to compete for scarce resources. And, supposedly, those tensions would permeate the electoral process.

What an idiotic assumption that turned out to be. Our performance on election proved that. We stood by you. And now, we expect -- no, we demand -- that you stand by us. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised if -- Democrat or not -- when the time comes to stand before us for re-election, you wind up standing alone.

If that happens, after all the promise that your election represented, what else is there left to say but: What a shame.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial board member of the San Diego Union-Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a weekly commentator at CNN.COM, and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam).