Geraldo Rivera: Si, Se Puede (Or, Maybe Not)

“Experiencing a wave of prejudice and persecution unseen since the scary days of the last Great Depression, Hispanic citizens registered and voted (in 2008) for the political party they believed would best protect their economic and social interests. And if the current climate persists, the odds are that the face of American politics has been forever altered. Put another way, if Latinos continue to vote for Democrats at the rate they voted for Barack Obama, then there may never be another Republican in the White House.”

It turns out that was a mighty big “if.” I wrote that paragraph in my book the ‘The Great Progression,’  in 2009. The newly elected president had just been swept into office by a tsunami of Latino voters electrified by his energy, his personal history, and his promise that ‘Sí se puede!’ (Yes, we can!).

At the time he enjoyed approval ratings that averaged around 64% among Hispanics. According to Gallup, his most recent job approval among Hispanics hit an all-time low of 44%, the lowest ever, and the third consecutive week the president earned less than majority support from the group.

The implication of that erosion of the president’s  popularity among Latinos is profound. If it corresponds to either diminished support or more likely diminished turnout among Latino voters in 2012, then he won’t be re-elected. It is especially troubling for the White House given last week’s “Revenge of the Jews,” the crushing special election victory of Republican Robert Turner in a heavily-Jewish Brooklyn New York congressional district where the GOP hasn’t won since the 1920’s.

For the Jewish voters polled, the decisive issue was President Obama’s handling of Israel, only 22% approving. For many Latino voters, the nagging issues are more complex.

First there is the Obama Administration’s surprisingly tough policy on immigration.  Instead of quickly pushing for comprehensive, compassionate reform as a way of rewarding the Latino community for the 7.35 million votes cast for Mr. Obama--a number which represented almost his entire 8.6 million margin of victory nationwide and the pivotal vote in states including Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and especially Florida--the White House bragged that they were deporting more undocumented immigrants than even the Bush Administration.

In addition to record deportations, the Democratic president turned loose federal auditors to ferret out undocumented workers from businesses, further pushing them desperately underground. The moves were widely interpreted as attempts to quell Tea Party anger over border insecurity, as manifested in moves by several states to pass their own tough anti-illegal immigration statutes.

Whether acting out of conscience or political self-preservation, President Obama and his team have recently  eased off on immigrants; announcing a massive review of 300,000 pending deportation cases; offering those undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed crimes, and who aren’t considered a threat to public safety, a chance to stay in the United States and perhaps later apply for work permits.

Mr. Obama’s actions were widely praised by immigration advocates, even as they were denounced by immigration hard-liners as “back door amnesty.” Still, his lack luster, equivocal performance on the seminal issue of immigration cannot be helping his popularity among Latinos, many now cynical that the recent easing is an election season ploy to buy votes.

Of at least equal import, as with all Americans, is the issue of the economy, which has wrecked disproportionate havoc on the Latino community.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the community suffered 11.1% unemployment at the end of August 2011, and are enduring unprecedented home foreclosures far exceeding the national rate.

To make political hay out of the community’s economic distress, Republicans are running a slick, effective new Spanish-language television ad in key Hispanic markets. It is designed to turn Latino voters against President Obama on the issue of the economy; specifically his failure to reduce chronic unemployment and the national debt.

Bankrolled by American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s emerging powerhouse Political Action Committee, the ad depicts a Latina mom rendered sleepless by her financial concerns. President Obama “sounded so good,” the troubled woman laments in voiceover as she checks on her sleeping children, worrying how she can protect them against the hard cruel world.

Given the unlikelihood of a rapid economic turnaround, the political bottom-line is the unprecedented opportunity the GOP has to alter its fortunes among Hispanic voters in the 2012 election. If Texas Governor and relative immigration moderate Rick Perry is the Republican nominee, or if born again immigration hardliner Mitt Romney wins the nod and chooses Florida Senator Marco Rubio as his running mate, President Obama will need more going for him than “Sí, se puede” to re-engage Latino voters.

Geraldo Rivera is a Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.