President Obama won't be attending the nation's largest gathering of Latino elected officials this weekend in San Antonio, Texas, drawing some blunt criticism from members of a constituency he's gone to great lengths to court.
"We have a standing commitment from the president that we are still waiting for him to fulfill," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, of the group's annual meeting.
NALEO invited Obama to deliver the keynote address each of the past three years. Each time he's declined, despite a promise candidate Obama made in 2008 that he'd return to speak as president.
"So the president went to El Paso, Puerto Rico, and convened a number of stakeholder meetings at the White House. That's terrific," Vargas said, "but people also want to talk to him about unemployment, education, health care, all the other challenges that cities and counties and states are dealing with day in and day out, and here's a gathering of the second-largest population group and their elected representatives."
A White House official said the president's schedule couldn't accommodate the trip to Texas for the event, and that they offered to have Obama speak at the group's February gala instead, which NALEO declined. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will deliver the keynote address to the group on Saturday.
Obama is scheduled to address a separate Hispanic advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, in Washington, D.C., in July.
"The scope of the president's efforts on behalf of Latinos and all Americans is not defined by his participation at one event but rather by the work carried out every day to put our economy back on track and spur job creation," said White House spokesman Luis Miranda in a statement.
Obama has said that his approach to improving economic conditions among minority communities -- particularly African-Americans and Hispanics -- is a broad one: "if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats," he said at a press conference in 2009.
Yet, as the effects of the recession linger, Hispanics -- like most economically frustrated Americans -- want to see results. And that has put Obama in a bind, speech or no speech.
"There's lots of talk about job creation, but we need to start seeing those jobs. African-Americans and Latinos are experiencing unemployment well above the national average," said Clarissa Martinez at the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan Latino advocacy group, in an interview last week. "And while the visibility Obama has given the immigration issue is important, the community is going to be looking for meaningful action there, too."
Polls show that Latinos, who voted for Obama by a two-to-one margin in 2008, remain supportive of the president, but their enthusiasm has waned.
The Obama campaign is now trying to reinvigorate their support, especially in key swing states, before the 2012 campaign.
"If Democrats take for granted that, 'Oh, we'll always get 60, 70 percent of the Latino vote,' I think history shows they're wrong," said Vargas. "Republicans can achieve the level of support they need to win national elections."