By Justin Sink
President Obama urged frustrated Hispanic lawmakers and activists to "keep believing" and "have his back," as he promised to keep fighting for immigration reform and take executive action this year.
"We have to be realistic," Obama said Thursday evening at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual awards dinner.
He explained that he delayed executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections because he needed the extra time to explain to the nation "why immigration reform is good for our economy and why it's good for everybody."
"For any action to last, for it to be effective and extend beyond my administration — because I'm only here for two more years — we're going to have to build more support among the American people."
For the president, Thursday's speech was his first public opportunity to reassure the Hispanic community since deciding to put off such action until after the midterm elections, despite having previously pledged to announce new administrative steps by the end of summer.
Obama made the decision with an eye on November, hoping it would boost his party’s chances of keeping its Senate majority. But by punting in early September, Obama earned the ire of longtime immigration reform activists who once again saw their hopes for a policy victory evaporate.
That anger was palatable on Thursday, and the president was interrupted repeatedly by a protester heckling him to move sooner on immigration. Before he spoke, Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezOvernight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers Senate narrowly rejects new FBI surveillance Kaine, Murphy push extension of Iran sanctions MORE (D-N.J.) said that the room was looking to Obama "for big, bold, unapologetic administrative relief for millions.”
"Mr. President, we need your help," Menendez said.
The president said he knew there was "deep frustration" among those there and said he shared it.
But, Obama said, "I ask you to keep believing."
"I meant what I said," he added, saying that "no force on Earth can stop us," if activists and politicians remain determined.
For the White House, calming the fears of immigration reform activists will be crucial to maintaining the president's political base. The White House has seen a sharp decline in Hispanic support, since it was announced he was delaying his executive action.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in October showed 47 percent of Hispanic voters approve of the president's performance, down 15 percentage points from April 2013. Fewer than 3 in 10 Hispanic voters described themselves as “very positive” about Obama.
In a Pew Research poll released in September, a majority of Hispanic Democrats, 52 percent, said their party wasn't doing a good job on immigration issues.
Vice President Biden hosted a Hispanic Heritage Month reception at his home late last month and said at the event that Obama was “absolutely committed to moving forward.” Biden added that the president would move ahead “with or without” Congress and that, “if they don't get something done by the end of this year, the president's going to do it.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told Telemundo last weekend Obama would “make good” on his promise to implement executive actions to address problems with the immigration system by the end of the year.
“This is a promise the president will keep,” Earnest said.
The president also used his address to argue that administration policies have benefitted Hispanics outside the areas of immigration policy. He noted that the Hispanic poverty rate was dropping, and the Hispanic drop out rate had been halved.