Obama visits Puerto Rico. Is it the path to taking Florida in 2012?
At the end of what looks like a campaign swing Tuesday, Obama is visiting Puerto Rico, the first sitting president to do so since JFK. Will it help him with mainland Hispanic voters in 2012?
Puerto Rico has a tradition of erecting a statue of any American president who visits the US territory, but the sculptorsâ€™ chisels have long been idled: John F. Kennedy was the last president to make an official visit to the island, in 1961.
Those chisels have been busy chipping away at stone once again, however, as President Obama plans to visit Puerto Rico for a few hours Tuesday at the end of a trip that is also taking in North Carolina and Florida.
North Carolina, Florida, and â€¦ Puerto Rico? The first two are political battleground states Mr. Obama won in 2008 and would dearly love to hang on to in 2012. But the people of Puerto Rico, while US citizens, do not have the right to vote in US presidential elections. So why tack a stop there onto what otherwise looks pretty much like a campaign swing?
The answer lies in demographics, and with the push both major political parties will make to win the nationâ€™s burgeoning Hispanic vote.
Puerto Ricans make up the second-largest Hispanic population in the US after Mexican-Americans. More Puerto Ricans â€“ almost 5 million â€“ now live on the mainland than on the Caribbean island, where the population is falling.
And while traditional mainland Puerto Rican communities are primarily in New York and other Northeast states, more-recent immigrants have tended to favor Florida. Puerto Ricans now make up about 5 percent of voters in a state where Obama is expected to need every vote he can get.
â€śWhat explains the presidentâ€™s visit to Puerto Rico is the fact that there are close to 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida,â€ť says Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miamiâ€™s Center for Hemispheric Policy. â€śFlorida is a swing state, and those are voters he wants to reach and votes heâ€™d like to count on.â€ť
But administration officials insist the visit has a broader purpose, and really reflects the emphasis Obama has given Puerto Rico since he took office.
â€śThis is historic, commemorating President Kennedyâ€™s visit 50 years ago,â€ť says Cecilia MuĂ±oz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs. â€śBut the visit itself is part of a larger effort,â€ť she adds, noting that it is the administrationâ€™s work â€śover allâ€ť that has the greatest potential for Puerto Rico.
In particular, Obama expanded a presidential task force on Puerto Ricoâ€™s political status created by President Clinton in 2000 to take up the islandâ€™s economic issues. That task force, co-chaired by Ms. MuĂ±oz and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, issued a report in March that highlights the islandâ€™s potential for green energy development.
Obama also directed federal agencies to ramp up efforts to include Puerto Rico in their activities, MuĂ±oz says. As one example, the Commerce Department on Wednesday will hold a business and trade conference on opportunities on the island, she says.
But it is the â€śstatus issueâ€ť that has dominated Puerto Ricoâ€™s relations with the mainland for decades. Obama is not expected to dwell on the topic, if he mentions it at all publicly, although aides say it is likely to come up in his meeting with Gov. Luis FortuĂ±o, a Republican who backs statehood.
The percentage of island residents favoring statehood over other permanent status options â€“ including independence or maintaining the actual commonwealth arrangement â€“ inched up in plebiscites in past years, with some recent polls showing statehood now favored by a majority. Governor FortuĂ±o says he plans to hold a vote before leaving office at the end of 2012.
And just in case that hasnâ€™t happened by that date, the Justice Departmentâ€™s Mr. Perrelli notes that the March task force report calls on the president and Congress to step in and come up with legislation paving the way for a vote on Puerto Ricoâ€™s status.
But even that initiative might, if undertaken, come across to some as suspiciously political. The University of Miamiâ€™s Dr. Purcell says such a move from Washington could be part of a Democratic Party â€śgame planâ€ť to bring in another reliably Democratic state.