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Obama, Sotomayor and ‘identity politics’

By
May 27, 2009

At first glance, President Barack Obama’s pick of Hispanic federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court appears to be a strong political move that appeals to the Latino base that helped put him in office and that he needs to win another term.

But some are also raising the question of whether the selection of the first Hispanic for the High Court is also just another abandonment of promises that he made during the election.

Sotomayor has said more than once that her racial identity is important in both her personal life and in her decision-making process. In 2001, she said her background gave her the ability to reach "better conclusions" than a "white male" judge.

During his campain for President, Obama called "identity politics" an "enormous distraction." He avoided such politics in 2008 and some believe it helped him win.

Ben Smith and Josh Kraushaar write on Politico:

Hispanic leaders across the country, many of whom attended the White House announcement, praised the appointment swiftly and in the strongest terms, and Republican leaders signaled an awareness of the political sensitivities by avoiding any suggestion of disrespect for the first Latina nominee to the nation’s highest court.

“The picture of an African-American president standing next to a Hispanic woman as his first choice for the Supreme Court — that picture is the worst nightmare for the Republican Party,” said Fernand Amandi, a Florida pollster whose firm, Bendixen Associates, surveyed Hispanic voters for Obama’s presidential campaign.

“The numbers, the symbolism and now the acts of the Democratic Party and this Democratic president underline and underscore the very bleak outlook for Republicans, where the…fastest growing demographics in the county are leaving them,” he said, noting that surveys earlier this decade suggested broad hunger among Hispanic voters for a court pick.

But the same reason that makes the nomination so politically powerful — the new president’s strengthened connection with Hispanics and women — also makes it risky in some parts of the country and for some Democrats facing tough elections in 2010. The unmistakable element of raw identity politics is one that Obama explicitly and implicitly disavowed during his campaign for president, and it runs counter to the approach the party has employed in building its House and Senate majorities.