Obama and Villaraigosa: The not-so-odd couple

At President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress a week ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sat in an honored seat near first lady Michelle Obama.
September 12, 2011

At President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress a week ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sat in an honored seat near first lady Michelle Obama.

The path that brought Villaraigosa from an outspoken advocate in the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2008 (and, some say, the doghouse with the Obama team) to his prime seat in the Capitol offers an intriguing story of shared interests, coinciding ambitions and changing political dynamics.

There are obvious similarities between these two men. Both had to surmount significant early challenges in order to rise to their current prominence. Both spent time as grass-roots organizers. Both represent “firsts” for minority politicians, and both know the possibilities and unique obstacles such candidates face. They stand at two ends of a new dynamic of black-Latino relations — an African American president elected with Latino support and a Latino mayor elected with African American backing. But, aside from all this, as personalities, they are very different.

The mayor experienced grievous political and personal damage through the breakup of his marriage due to an affair, and he would be the first to say that he is a flawed human being. Yet his peripatetic personality and his pursuit of big goals — such as ambitious growth in police hiring and his 30/10 plan to expedite mass transportation — have provided a foundation for a political comeback. Villaraigosa was re-elected in 2009. Termed out in two years, he has now begun dipping his feet into statewide and national waters as president of the United States Conference of Mayors and by giving speeches about the future of the Democratic Party. The mercurial Villaraigosa may yet crash and burn, but he will definitely fly close to the sun. While some do not trust the mayor as a person, it is hard to dismiss his significant accomplishments in office.

Obama, on the other hand, is seen as the world’s most stable guy. Voters like and trust him, even in hard times. His steady, calm personality has made him a formidable professional in foreign policy. Nevertheless, in the face of the domestic economic crisis that has enveloped his presidency, his distant, professorial, avowedly bipartisan, and often-cautious approach has brought him and his party to the verge of political catastrophe. Obama will never crash and burn by flying close to the sun, but he may collapse from a lack of drive or thirst for getting things done no matter what is in the way.

Back in 2008, Villaraigosa supported Clinton against Obama in the epic Democratic nomination battle. He was in tune with Latino voters, who heavily supported the former first lady. Near the end of the primaries, the Clinton-Obama struggle became extremely tense, as the Clinton camp hinted that Latinos and white Democrats would be unlikely to support Obama should he become the nominee. In a much quoted line, one of Clinton’s pollsters, Sergio Bendixen, told a reporter that “the Hispanic voter — and I want to say this very carefully — has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

When Obama won the nomination, Villaraigosa nevertheless immediately began to work hard for Obama in the general election. Rumors persisted that the mayor was on the outs with the Obama camp, especially when he was not invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It would make sense that the Obama people would respond first to those who had supported him all along, and Villaraigosa had to work his way in.

The Clinton people’s predictions about Latinos were dead wrong. Latinos came out and voted heavily for Obama, helping him carry Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. Villaraigosa’s own experience provided the best explanation of what had happened. Latino voters knew and trusted the Clintons and had to learn to trust the new black guy. It was a lesson Villaraigosa himself confronted when black voters who had known and trusted the Hahns then had to learn to trust the new Latino guy.

In the first two years of his presidency, Obama got much legislation passed, including the health care plan. So, early on, Obama seemed to be a sure bet for re-election. Latinos gave high approval ratings to the president.

But the bottom fell out in 2010, as Obama showed little flair for the political work of maintaining his base of support, while his advisers focused his attention instead on the illusory “independents” (at least as brilliant a strategy as searching for unicorns and moderate Republicans). The White House’s disdain for the Democratic base drove down party turnout in the 2010 races and demoralized even the president’s supporters. After the Democrats lost the House in 2010, along with many state houses, Obama’s prospects worsened. His approval ratings among white Democrats, among Jews and even among African Americans all have shown declines.

No drop has been bigger than the president’s support among Latinos. The Gallup Poll found that between June 2009 and August 2011, approval of Obama among Latinos fell from 78 to 48 percent, the largest decline of any group. Latino voters are urgently concerned with the economy and with education, as working people seeking to make it into the middle class. While Latinos are divided on how to deal with illegal immigration (despite the stereotypes), they react strongly against what seem to be unfair policies that target Latino immigrants, including those who are undocumented.

As part of his strategy to win Republican support for immigration reform, Obama greatly expanded deportations on the erroneous assumption that Republicans only opposed immigration reform because he had not compromised enough. As immigration activists raged, the White House dithered. In July, Obama told immigration activists that he could not do anything without Congress, and that they should concentrate their efforts on influencing Republicans.

On the jobs and public investment fronts, Obama’s focus on the deficit and the national debt, aimed at independent voters, offered little to Latinos, who like most Americans want the focus to be on spurring job growth and on education and other public purposes.

Obama’s first step back from the brink came in the form of an announcement that the White House could, indeed, do something without Congress, which is to re-examine the cases of 300,000 people slated for deportations, to focus priority on criminals. Latino and immigrant-rights groups were very pleased. Further, last week’s big speech, with its emphasis on jobs and public investment, should appeal strongly to Latinos.

And that’s where the Los Angeles mayor comes in.

Villaraigosa has been a major advocate for urban transportation and has won support for it from key Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. His idea is to get a bridge loan for Los Angeles’ transportation construction from the federal government and to use the sales tax revenue voters approved in 2008, in a campaign he led, to pay it back. He has been seeking a federal commitment, to date with limited success. Now there is much greater incentive, and it looks like there is a confluence of interests. With the president finally pushing an aggressive jobs agenda, fast-track transportation projects like those proposed by Villaraigosa can make things happen. Normally, cities don’t get much love from the federal government, but in times like these, there is no better place to quickly invest lots of jobs-producing funding than a metropolis with lots and lots of willing and able workers and big things to build.

If Villaraigosa (along with other local officials around the country) can help Obama restore a bit of his lost support, the polls and the president’s prospects could start to look better than they do today. And if greater public investment occurs as the White House moves its focus consistently and effectively onto jobs, there is every reason to think that some of that effort will help Los Angeles. This odd couple of breakthrough politicians may yet make an effective team.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

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