Immigration protest rally
Immigration protest rally (Getty Image)

The president’s DREAM Act-ish executive order is an all-out effort to win Latino votes and put his rivals on a difficult political position.

Friday morning at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño—a rising star in GOP politics—closed his speech quoting Ronald Reagan as saying that “Hispanics are Republicans—they just don’t know it, yet.”

Maybe. But President Barack Obama still plans on having something to say about that.

A few hours later—with the White House Rose Garden’s birds chirping furiously in the background and The Daily Caller’s Neil Munro brazenly heckling from the press gallery—Obama described young undocumented immigrants as “Americans in their hearts, their minds, and in every single way but one—on paper,” and announced an executive order to halt their deportation if they’d been brought to the United States as children and if they meet several requirements.

The president’s move—made just a week before he and Mitt Romney address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando—will almost surely be dismissed by critics as “pandering.” But it could shake up the presidential election. And not just because it’s the first definitive move in the race by either candidate to push for a tangible policy change on the wish list of many Latino voters and leaders.

It’s also a clear switch from offense to defense for an Obama campaign that’s been flailing for several weeks. And Obama’s appeal to Latinos—one of the still swayable voting groups—puts Romney and Latino conservatives on the spot with respect to an idea that’s not very popular with the Republican base.

The order doesn’t grant a path to citizenship, but will, according to the Associated Press, make illegal immigrants undeportable if they were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16, are younger than 30, have been here for at least five years with no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school, earned a GED or served in the military and it carries a two-year work permit with unlimited renewal.

Here’s what else it does for the president:

Challenges Romney

Romney supports a DREAM Act for veterans, but not high school grads. So the executive order puts Obama back on offense, by forcing his challenger to take a stand that’s likely favored by a majority of Latino voters, or the Republican base—but probably not both.

Upstages Rubio

In recent weeks, freshman Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—another up-and-coming Latino Republican star who’s a tea party favorite and on Romney’s vice-presidential short-list—has floated a similar DREAM Act proposal. But never as an actual bill in Congress. Now he’s been upstaged.

Defies Congress

And in keeping with Obama’s on-again-off-again Truman-esque campaign against the “do nothing” Congress, the order is a direct rebuke to legislators who voted the DREAM Act down at the end of 2010, on the very same day they repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Changes Conversation

Plus, it turns the page. Team Obama’s been plagued by Hilary Rosen-gate, Cory Booker-gate, Bill Clinton-gate, and yes, Barack Obama-gate—with DREAM act talk getting the president’s ill-fated remark about the private sector “doing fine” onto the back burner.

Reaches Latinos

But most importantly for Obama’s reelection effort, his executive order is a marker of good-faith with Latino voters, some of whom have expressed disappointment that immigration reform hasn’t been a more pressing priority during Obama’s presidency.

And though Latinos aren’t single-issue voters or a monolithic voting bloc, immigration is an issue that’s personal for many Latinos, whether or not they’re immigrants themselves.

Which is why the president framed his executive order in the context of the broader immigration debate, saying that “In addition to border security” his administration is “creating a comprehensive framework for legal immigration”—using language that hints at a promise of more reform in a second term.

With Latinos playing a major role in deciding whether he gets one.

Follow @Swerdlick on Twitter.