Notwithstanding Sonia Sotomayor's professional qualifications for the U.S. Supreme Court - crime prosecutor, corporate litigator, federal judge - it's clear that President Obama also hopes to leverage her nomination for maximum political benefit. At the very least, he's hoping in the short run to gain some good will with the Hispanic community.
Policy fused with politics - that's how the game is played.
The raw political facts are these: Sotomayor is a first-generation Hispanic American. Hispanics are the fastest-growing cohort in the American electorate, and lasy year they favored Obama over John McCain by a whopping 36 percentage points - after favoring John Kerry over George W. Bush by only nine points in 2004. Hispanic voters are already (or potentially) pivotal in a growing roster of states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Obama won all those states except for Arizona and Georgia, and he has already set his sights on Arizona for 2012. Indeed, he's strongly focused on the demographic trends in the interior West, where Hispanic population growth will help give those states more electoral votes next time around. It's tough to see how the GOP can win in '12 if Obama locks down the interior West. The same is true if he locks down Florida, with its burgeoning Hispanic electorate; as conservative political analyst Bill Pascoe writes today with respect to Florida, the Sotomayor nomination "may be the kind of political master stroke that puts Obama on the glide path to reelection."
And Hispanic political leaders, well aware of Obama's long-term political strategy and his 36-point victory margin among Hispanics in 2008, have been fully expecting Obama to demonstrate his gratitude in 2009.
So, in strictly political terms, Sotomayor is his first big gratuity payment.
There have been smaller thank-you gestures; an Hispanic congresswoman, Hilda Solis, and an Hispanic senator, Ken Salazar, have been appointed to the Cabinet. Although Congress took awhile to confirm Solis (thanks to the usual Republican naysaying), it's generally easy for a president to show gratitude by making appointments. It's much tougher for a president to launch a sweeping reform plan, guide it through a typically disputatious Congress, and sign something that reflects his original vision.
But that's what Hispanic leaders want most from Obama. They want an immigration reform law that would provide a path to citizenship for the nation's 12 million illegals. Obama has pledged to make it happen. The problem is that the politics of immigration reform are volatile, emotional, and divisive - particularly if attempted in the midst of a recession marked by high unemployment. Granted, I doubt that laid-off white-collar Americans would be grousing about all the newly-legalized immigrants taking all the good restaurant dishwasher jobs, but it's rough to do reform in a climate when the opponents of reform can most easily fan the flames of nativism.
As Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers, said recently, "Introducing immigration reform this year would be the equivalent of Clinton's proposal in 1993 to have gays serve openly in the military - an initiative that would derail everything else Obama wants to do," such as reviving the economy. Indeed, when Obama was asked the other day, during an interview on Hispanic radio, about the '09 prospects for immigration reform, he replied: "We've been delayed a little because of the economic crisis."
But I wonder whether we'll see a big immigration reform push next year, either - regardless of whether the economic indicators are up. After all, next year is another election year, and it's debatable whether all those freshmen Democratic congressmen from conservative-leaning swing districts would want to support such a hot-button bill.
Therefore, in the short run, Obama is clearly hoping that the Sotomayor nomination will gain him some good will, a bit more breathing room, some extra time to assess whether the climate for immigration reform is likely to brighten. Hispanic leaders vow to keep the pressure on (which is what we would expect them to say), but it's also true that immigration reform is hardly their only issue of concern. Hispanic fortunes obviously would be boosted by an improving economy, health insurance reform, and education reform - all of which are top Obama priorities in 2009.
And even if relations between Obama and Hispanic leaders get dicey from time to time, the president can probably expect that the conservatives in the other camp will make his job easier by demonstrating anew their instincts for intolerance. They're doing it again, with the Sotomayor nomination. Numerous times yesterday, and again on cable TV last evening, they dismissed Sotomayor as an "affirmative action" hire.
Yep, that's already the unofficial conservative message - that no matter how hard an Hispanic may work, and how high she might rise, and how many honors she might win (such as Princeton's highest undergraduate award), and how much jurisprudential experience she might accrue, in the end she will never be recognized as equal to a white person because she is just an "affirmative action" hire.
Indeed, one observer issued this warning to conservatives earlier today: "Going into weeks or months of paroxysms and hysterics (about Sotomayor) is just going to make the party look bitter, mean, tone deaf, and out of touch."
That would be Mark McKinnon, Texas Republican and former presidemtial campaign consultant for George W. Bush.
McKinnon correctly perceives Sotomayor's ethnicity to be an asset that conservatives dare not contest. Obama, of course, would love it if the Republican right keeps talking about "affirmative action. The president is probably thinking, "That's great, guys, just keep being who you are." There's no better way to prove to Hispanic voters that he and the Democrats, despite their sluggishness on immigration reform, are ultimately the only game in town.