In his Inaugural speech, President Obama advocated for progress on immigration, gay rights, women’s pay and voting rights. (Photo/Getty Images )

In forceful speech, Obama invokes immigration amidst strong Latino presence

It was an Inaugural ceremony that markedly showed the growing Latino presence in American cultural and political life.  The nation’s first Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor swore in Vice President Joe Biden.  Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco wrote and delivered an Inaugural Poem whose graceful words spoke of his immigrant parents’ hard work to give him a better life. And Cuban-American Episcopal priest Luis Leon blessed the nation – in English and in Spanish.

And in his Inaugural speech, the nation’s newly re-elected 44th President did not shy away from trumpeting a progressive agenda, in what many see as a strong nod to the diverse and broad coalition which elected him to a second term.  In his speech, the President mentioned the need to work for equal pay for women, equality for gay families, a defense of voting rights, and the need to tackle immigration.

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” said President Obama said, in a clear reference to the ongoing calls for reforming immigrants’ and Dreamers’ status.

Celeste Montoya, a political scientist who teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder,  thinks Obama’s more progressive themes – equal pay, gay rights, immigration reform – could indicate a bolder, second-term agenda, now that the President is freed from the worry of re-election.

“I think as the first African-American President, Obama was more constrained in his first term,” explains Montoya. She also thinks there is another reason why the President might feel more comfortable striking more progressive themes this time around. “When Republican candidates went for divisive strategies, it didn’t work,” says Montoya. “I think the President recognizes the legitimacy of the progressive coalition which elected him.  There has been a shift.”

Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, (NCLR), says this speech also signals a different time. “In the first term, we had a big economic crisis that gobbled up a lot of time and energy,” he says. “This speech felt right, in the way he now has a mandate and an opening to pursue the things he really believes in,” states Rodriguez.

Obama did throw a jab at Mitt Romney’s comments on the “47 percent” and the “takers.”  In his speech, the President said, “The commitments we make to each other –  through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – they do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

Political scientist and NBC Latino contributor Victoria DeFrancesco Soto says there is a difference in the second term presidency.  “Without re-election, Obama can say, ‘no me importa, I’m going to do it,’ and pursue certain issues; there is a freedom that comes with that,” she says.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education project, describes the President’s speech as inspiring but a bit too cautious and calibrated.  “He did bring back climate change from the dead, but I expected more than a nod on some issues,” Gonzalez says. On immigration reform, “he’s going to have to lay out plans very soon and start mobilizing,” states Gonzalez.

The question now is whether President Obama’s more forceful and progressive speech signals a willingness to put up more of a fight to push for issues he supports. Gonzalez thinks the President may be drawing lessons from his first term.

“I think in his first term Obama made the mistake of negotiating with himself; and when his first Administration was proposing bipartisanship, there were no takers,” says Gonzalez.  Now, the President might be reconsidering that approach, says Gonzalez. “I don’t think he will make this mistake again – in the land of hardball , if you want to win, you can’t play softball.”

But throughout the speech, Obama stressed the need to come together to face the nation’s challenges.

“We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names,” said Obama, but rather the allegiance to the truth that “all men are created equal.”

Juan Sepulveda, a Senior advisor to the Democratic National Committee and former Administration official, says the most important message he hopes comes out of the speech is the need for more unity.  “All Americans, including Latinos, can show the country how we can work together to make it happen.”

NCLR’s Eric Rodriguez says the speech’s theme of  “we the people ” had particular resonance in light of Latinos’ participation in November.

“We had an election where Latinos stood in line for 7 or 8 hours, even after polls closed, to exercise their right to vote,” says Rodriguez.  “It’s an acknowledgment that the work ahead requires the focus and attention of the people.”

For Andres Lopez, co-chair of the Futuro Fund and one of President Obama’s most influential Latino fundraisers, today was a day to bask in the growing Hispanic presence, evident today in the nation’s capital.

“From Justice Sotomayor’s swearing-in of Vice President Biden to  Richard Blanco’s exquisite inaugural poem to Luis Leon’s bilingual benediction, the signs are clearer than ever: the future is ours.  El futuro es nuestro,” says Lopez.

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