President Obama is in Puerto Rico Tuesday, marking the first visit to the small island by a sitting president since John F. Kennedy in 1961. He is making good on a campaign promise delivered in 2008 to return to Puerto Rico if he was elected president. But the trip is much more than that. It’s part of a larger effort to court the Latino community, which could have a significant impact on Obama’s re-election prospects.
"What I do remember is that when I came here to campaign, I promised that I would return as president of the United States," Obama said during a welcome ceremony. "And although my hair is a little grayer than during my first visit, I am glad to be able to keep that promise to the people of Puerto Rico."
Latinos accounted for about 36.7% of the votes that enabled Obama to beat Sen. John McCain and have a critical presence in such states as Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. So why Puerto Rico? Although citizens of the U.S. territory cannot vote, close to one million Puerto Ricans live in nearby Florida, a key swing state, and his visit won’t go unnoticed by millions of others around the nation.
Earlier this year, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status was expanded to include economic issues, such as jobs, education and health care. According to White House director of intergovernmental affairs Cecilia Munoz, who chairs the task force, the panel is engaged at the cabinet level “around one table to focus on both the question of political status as well as economic conditions on the island—what it has really done is inspired ways for the agencies to work across boundaries to develop, both individually and collectively, some real vision for the kind of work that can be carried out,” which she said could be transformative for the island.
"We are going to be able to improve our education system here in Puerto Rico and all across America," said the president. "We are making strides to improve our health care system here in Puerto Rico and all across America. We are going to put people back to work here in Puerto Rico and all across America."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) told BET.com that it is extremely important for Obama to attract a high percentage of the Latino vote in 2012.
“I think they could be the game changers,” he said. “And talking to my Hispanic friends, they do have concerns about immigration but when they look at what a Republican might do as opposed to the president, they feel more comfortable.”
(Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)