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Analysis: Are Latinos Feeling the Optimism Obama Preached in SOTU?

President Barack Obama's final State of the Union focused on the future. Latinos weighed in on whether his record has left Latinos optimistic.

WASHINGTON, DC -- Latinos were with President Barack Obama in a big way when he proclaimed a hopeful ¡Sí, se puede! and won two terms in office.

Now that he’s a year from finishing his presidency, and the community is assessing what got done and where it stands, the question is whether Latinos share the optimism Obama preached in his last State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

Rather than give a list of what he’d accomplished or what he still needed to get done, Obama focused on what’s to come for Americans, with an undercurrent of trying to change the tone of the 2016 elections.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” Obama told Congress in his final State of the Union speech. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”

Before his speech, Obama told NBC Today’s Matt Lauer that with good choices now, regardless of who the next president is or who is controlling Congress, “there’s no reason we shouldn’t own the 21st century.”

For Latinos, that hits home. Hispanics are relatively younger than much of the rest of the American population. Their median age is 29 and one in four children of school age is Latino.

But the issue is whether they are in position economically to shape the future in the way Obama envisions. And regarding immigration, have his policies - deportations as well as deportation deferrals through executive action - worn down immigrants and citizens or given them reason to expect a better future?

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Rep. Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the state of Latinos has to be considered in the context of its past. “Compared to what,” is the question he asks when prompted about how Latinos are doing.

“Look at where we started in 2009,” said the California congressman. “We are getting more. We are seeing we have the opportunity for our fair share.”

Polls have shown that Latinos are more optimistic than their white counterparts. Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, said the community has reason to be optimistic, even if they’ve taken a thumping in the past couple of decades.

“This is a president who saved the country from financial ruin and Latinos were the hardest hit group of all Americans,” he said. “They lost a significant percentage of their assets because of the recession.”

The administration sees the unemployment rate for Latinos as a shiny spot, having been cut by more than half, from 13 percent at the start of and during Obama’s term to 6.3 percent, a rate below the rate at the start of the recession.

“President Obama helped move this country forward,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif. “It started off very ugly … It was gangrene they had been given, and they chopped off an arm and took care of it that way.”

But a December job growth report for Latinos, compiled by the National Council of La Raza, showed that 13.8 million Latinos were not in the labor force last month, with 65.5 percent of the population over the age of 16 participating.

In addition, the wealth gap has widened since the Recession’s end, with the net worth of whites in America being 10 times greater in 2013 than that of Latinos, according to Pew Research Center’s latest report.

Those factors mean it will take more time to rebuild Latino confidence for the community to reflect the optimistic tone Obama struck in his speech, said David Ferreira, a political and economic analyst.

"We are in the middle of an economic recovery and the recession is still a fresh wound that hasn't fully healed," Ferreira said. "People haven't completely recovered)their lost assets and so people are still feeling deep economic uncertainty."

Rosario Marín, former U.S. treasurer during the George W. Bush administration, argued Latinos are worse off today than they were before he became president. More are in need of assistance and those not participating have been discouraged by the job market.

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“I wouldn’t be so proud if I was Obama of the legacy for Latinos,” Marín said.

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz also challenged the economic picture Obama created, saying the economy only works for those in Washington.

“Obama’s final State of the Union address marks the end of eight years of lost potential for America,” Cruz said.

But Obama was ready for the naysayers. In his speech, he said anyone saying the economy is in decline “is peddling fiction.” He acknowledged that many Americans are anxious about profound changes in the economy. And creating a more equitable economy was on his list of how to build a better 21st century.

“If we make some good choices now whoever the next president is, who ever runs the next Congress, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t own the next century,” Obama said in his pre-speech interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer.

Democrats said that in addition to a drop in unemployment for Latinos, millions more in the community can afford and have access to health care coverage. About a third of Hispanics lacked coverage before the Affordable Care Act became law, that number is now at about 25 percent.

“In my state, before, 38 percent didn’t have health coverage. That number has dropped significantly. (Obama has) been somebody whose policies have helped Latinos in many ways,” Castro said.

Overshadowing all of this, is immigration. The president’s look into the future comes as his administration is doing all it can to keep that future from including a repeat of the summer of 2014’s arrival at the border of tens of thousands of Central American migrants.

The administration is getting heavy criticism from immigration and Latino advocates and fellow Democrats, including those who praised him here, for deploying immigration officers on New Year’s weekend to arrest some of the Central American families who have been ordered deported.

Cárdenas, D-Calif., acknowledged the ongoing arrests could overshadow some of the reasons Latinos could feel optimistic about their futures after the Obama era.

The record deportations have already “left a bad taste in the mouths” of the community and now “the administration is going after women and children who haven’t been given due process,” Cárdenas said.

United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, posted a video on Facebook of Obama criticizing Bush in 2008 over splitting families with raids and detaining people without legal counsel.

But Becerra said the community should not forget that hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, many of them Latino, have been able to stay here without fear of deportation and to work because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program Obama authorized.

Millions more would have had the same chance were it not for a lawsuit filed by Republicans to stop Obama from extending the deferrals and work permits to them as well, he said.

“It really was about hope and change,” Becerra said. “I saw the change and believe we have hope.”

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