The president's strategy to win back Latinos becomes more visible. But has anyone really noticed?
One challenge to writing a bi-weekly column is keeping up with the fast pace of news.
I got a good dose of this just a couple of weeks ago after writing about President Obama's struggle to articulate a plan to win the Latino vote in 2012. I filed my column May 1 (it ran two days later), the very day that Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden. Despite a last-minute attempt to contextualize my column in light of the far more sensational news of the moment, I failed to see that Obama had just taken action to unveil his Latino strategy. On Monday, May 2, in the midst of the Osama media blitz, President Obama announced what now appears to be the first leg of a strategy: a bilingual site dedicated to his effort to engage Latino voters.
To be fair – to me – I'm not sure how many people noticed. Again, most of us were caught up in the big story about the U.S. raid on Osama's compound in Pakistan. And by itself, the story about the site would not have been enough to change the perception that the president's plan for Latinos was MIA. It's just a website after all.
But more discerning citizens will have noticed that a number of things have happened under the shadow of the Osama news. We now have, I believe, the outlines of a plan that deserves close attention.
As I said in my May 3 column, the Obama 2012 Latino playbook will very likely involve youth, a focus on immigration and education, and a focus on social media. The past two weeks appear to support all three points – more on that in a moment – but let's start with the news that got silenced on the day after the Osama news: the launch of the president's Latino website. Again, it's not a big story on its own, but it's interesting in the context of other developments that followed. The site was the beginning of a larger program to lay down the web infrastructure for engaging Latinos. It didn't have much new content to start – except for a white paper on "the critical role Hispanics play in the President's vision for America to win the future." But it was a placeholder for a potential hub for conversation that the president hoped to start.
The conversation came sooner than expected. On May 10, just a little more than a week after the Osama news broke, the president began a tour of U.S. border towns to announce his vision for comprehensive immigration reform. He called reform an economic and moral imperative – arguing that the current legal framework has created a "massive underground economy" – and made a plea to lawmakers to restart work on passing the so-called DREAM Act, legislation that would grant permanent residency to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Passage of the DREAM Act failed in the lame-duck session in Congress late last year, and most followers of the measure doubt that the president has the votes to turn this around. But it was an intriguing bit of content, and the president urged people to, yep, go to the new White House website to continue the conversation.
If this were all the news, we wouldn't have much to converse about. But just days after Obama's first border talk, Democratic leaders in the Senate formally reintroduced the DREAM Act. This was big news. First, it signaled a campaign for the content and infrastructure that Obama has just lain down. Second, it was a campaign that at least theoretically had staying power through the end of the year and into the 2012 election. The fact that the DREAM Act may not pass until after the 2012 election could be a good thing for Obama, despite the heat he got last week from critics. In electoral marketing parlance, it might frame the issue and underline his position in a sustainable way.
But for me, the most important thing about the reintroduction of the DREAM Act is how the campaign might address each of the things Obama must do to win the election: mobilize youth, focus on immigration and education, and focus on social media. The DREAM Act, which has already mobilized many young Latinos, is about immigration and education. And as for the focus on social? Well, it's not just the site that Obama has created for Latinos, but all the social technology that the DREAMERs and other young Latinos are using to communicate, mobilize, and get things done. As Obama demonstrated in the last presidential election, social is not just about the tools (the technology), but also the rules of getting people to organize themselves to do the gargantuan work of getting their candidate elected. The social media folk like to call this "peer production." Will young Latinos feel motivated to get with their peers to help pass the DREAM Act and thus help Obama get reelected? Who knows? Many critics – on the right and on the left – have suggested that Obama might focus on his own production – administrative action he can take to curtail the deportation of undocumented immigrants. But you can credit the president for rolling out a strategy that makes peer production possible. It's the real stuff of social, and when it works you can win big.
Of course, this can't be the entire Obama 2012 Latino playbook. But it's a critically important play, and we can be sure to see it in even greater clarity in the coming months, so long as fewer items on the news compete for our attention.
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Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.
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