Obama looks to capitalize on shift in presidential race’s momentum

President Obama will look to cap a week in which momentum in the presidential race appeared to shift in his favor with a Friday address to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Florida.

Obama will speak to the group one week after his surprising decision to halt deportations of illegal immigrants brought to the nation as children, a move that caught opponent Mitt Romney flat-footed, forcing him to play defense all week on the issue.

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The immigration move came after Obama had endured several politically brutal weeks that bottomed out with his comments earlier this month that the private sector was “doing fine” — a gaffe Republicans are still using to their advantage with an ongoing ad campaign.

But over the last week, an embattled Obama seemed to find his footing.

Besides the deportation decision, an announcement Wednesday to claim executive privilege over documents sought by House Republicans in their battle with Attorney General Eric Holder also seemed to unify Democrats and energize Obama’s base.

Like the deportation story, the fight over Holder shifted the topic from the economy, something GOP strategist Karl Rove said could play into the White House’s hands.

It also inserted the president more directly into a battle with the Republican House, which Obama hopes to tie to Romney.

“It did shift attention from the economy and put Obama out front on the immigration issue, something that potentially could have huge electoral consequences,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Both moves also showed off the advantage Obama has because of his incumbency.

Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, said Obama is doing a bit of “muscle-flexing” and using the so-called bully pulpit to his advantage, first with the deportation decision and then with Wednesday’s executive-privilege move on the Fast and Furious controversy.

“What you’re seeing is the power of the presidency on full display,” Sweet said. “He can set the agenda in a way that a challenger cannot.

“I think that’s what you’re going to see more of, and he will be able to show a challenger as weak."

Republicans say Obama is simply trying to shift the story from the struggling economy, and Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary at the Republican National Committee, disagreed with the notion that Obama has had a successful week.

Kukowski said Team Obama has tried to “distract” the electorate with both the deportation and Fast and Furious moves because “they don’t want to talk about the No. 1 issue that is on everyone’s minds.

“It’s very short-sighted to think that’s the issue that’s going to win the Hispanics for them,” she said. “Our message is in line with what Hispanics care about, the economy.”

In his own address to NALEO on Thursday, Romney attempted to turn the tables on Obama. The GOP nominee accused Obama of failing to show leadership on Hispanic issues and implementing the deportation order to secure votes from a much-needed constituency.

“For two years, this president had huge majorities in the House and Senate; he was free to pursue any policy he pleased,” Romney said. “But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Nothing.

“Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote,” Romney added.

In the coming months, Republicans say Romney will continue to emphasize that Obama hasn’t done much to improve the lives of Hispanic voters. They point to the high Hispanic unemployment rate, which they say is three points higher than the national average.

The economy, Sweet said, “is Obama’s Achilles' heel, and to the extent that he can pivot away from that, that’s all to his advantage.”

That won’t be easy in the next few weeks, beginning with the next monthly jobs report, due two weeks from Friday, on July 6.

Zelizer added that the deportation decision isn’t a slam-dunk for Obama.

“There is still a lot of skepticism within the immigrant community about what Obama has done since taking office,” Zelizer said. “And the issue is incredibly polarizing within both parties — with some Democrats rather conservative on this issue and many Republicans energized by this … So this issue can easily cut both ways for the president.”

Still, the week ends with several new polls from Bloomberg, The Associated Press and the Pew Research Center showing Obama with a lead over Romney.

The deportation decision has also polled well with voters and given him an instant boost with Hispanics, who could make the difference in the swing states of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia.

At the White House on Thursday, press secretary Jay Carney sought to capitalize on Obama’s deportation decision and go on offense. He underlined the president’s support for immigration issues, including the DREAM Act, and insisted that Romney had an opposing view on the matter.

“Look, we have a situation where the nominee of the Republican Party, the head of that party at this point, has said he would veto the DREAM Act,” Carney told reporters.

Vicissitudes in the presidential campaign are expected by both sides, but Obama supporters cast Obama’s last two moves as swift, bold decisions that helped the president shake off a rough couple of weeks.

“Those two decisions served as the ultimate reminder to a sometimes skittish establishment,” said a former senior administration official. “When the president takes strong, decisive action, it moves things back into his favor."

That’s not to say Team Obama doesn’t think there will be more turns in a presidential race both sides expect to stay tight.

The senior administration official warned, “We’ll catch a break for a little while, but things will be a constant ebb and flow.”