President Obama made a triumphal return to Puerto Rico on Tuesday morning, keeping a campaign promise to the island and recognizing the growing clout of Puerto Rican voters in states he needs to win next year. With Puerto Rico suffering unemployment far higher than any state, he also asked island residents to be patient as he works to fix the economy.
“These problems didn't develop overnight here in Puerto Rico or anywhere else overnight,” he told supporters at the San Juan airport. “But day by day, step by step, we will solve them.” He added, “We are going to put people back to work here in Puerto Rico and all across America.”
Puerto Rico waited 50 years for a president to make an official visit and had to settle for a presidential speech of less than 10 minutes, the only public event of the five-hour visit, which also includes a political fundraiser. The last president to make an official visit was John F. Kennedy in 1961.
In his remarks, Obama noted that many of the problems addressed by Kennedy on that trip remain today – the political status of the territory, education, health care, and jobs. But he promised to keep those problems on his agenda and repeatedly promised not to forget Puerto Rico.
“The aspirations and the struggle on this island mirror those across America,” he said, drawing applause when he said the sacrifices made by Puerto Ricans in the U.S. military are “as American as apple pie.”
The 4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island are citizens but cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. The 4.2 million Puerto Ricans who live in the United States, however, can vote and, almost unnoticed, they have amassed significant political clout in several states that will be key to Obama’s 2012 hopes.
The 11 states with the most Puerto Ricans total 241 of the 270 electoral votes needed to give Obama a second term. They read like a roll call of battleground states: Florida (847,555 Puerto Ricans); New Jersey (434,092); Pennsylvania (366,082); Connecticut (252,972); Illinois (182,989); Ohio (94,965); and Virginia (73,958). (The other states in the top 11 are New York, Massachusetts, California, and Texas, none of which is considered a battleground.)
And officials who work on Puerto Rican issues made clear on Monday that they would be paying close attention to what the president does and says when he is on the island, indicating they want more than they got when then-Sen. Obama visited Puerto Rico in 2008. Puerto Ricans were thrilled to be visited by a candidate and impressed that he promised to return if elected president. But there was a limit to their excitement – Hillary Rodham Clinton clobbered Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in the Democratic primary.
Still, Obama kept his promise to return.
He walked, instead of riding, to the hangar at Muniz Air National Guard Base, waving and smiling to the crowd that waved small Puerto Rican and American flags.
Before the president arrived, Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, predicted “a really, really good photo op for him.... There'll be hundreds of thousands grateful for the symbolism of an American president coming to visit the island and bring some attention to it.”
Falcon said the visit addresses the belief by many Puerto Ricans that “people in the United States simply don’t know enough of Puerto Rico and its issues. So hopefully this will bring attention to that and the president will get a warm reception.”
As he promised to do in 2008, Obama appointed a task force on Puerto Rico’s status, a commission that issued its report on March 11 after studying everything from the choice between statehood and continuing commonwealth status to jobs programs, water quality, crime, health care, and clean energy projects. Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, a co-chairman of the task force, said on Monday that the president’s trip was “really going to highlight” the report.
That may not please everybody, particularly those who believe that Obama and his task force have failed to deliver on immigration reform. “When the commission issued its report, it was basically seen as more of the same,” said Falcon. “It really was a dud.”
The demand for more focus on immigration comes even though Puerto Ricans are already citizens. But they see the impact of today’s broken system because so many immigrants flood into the island hoping to make it to the United States. Additionally, they chafe at seeing Dominicans who came through Puerto Rico later deported by the Obama administration after excelling in high school.
“Maybe we should be anti-immigrant because we are already citizens,” said Falcon. “That certainly is not the case. For the president, he should understand that the issue of immigration is critical for Puerto Ricans.”
Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, demanded on Monday that Obama use his executive powers to stop the deportations even though the DREAM Act has not been passed to grant residency to immigrant students who graduate from American high schools. “We want to send a clear message to President Obama – executive actions speak louder than words,” Rodriguez said.
“The broken immigration system is not just affecting undocumented immigrants. But the racial profiling and the anti-immigrant sentiment is seen as anti-Latino and, by inference, anti-Puerto Rican as well.”
In perhaps no state has the growing political clout of Puerto Ricans been on display as boldly as in Florida, a state Obama needs to win next year and where the Puerto Rican population has jumped almost 80 percent in just 10 years. Rodriguez noted that Puerto Ricans recently flexed their newfound political muscle there to help lead the successful fight against an Arizona-style anti-immigration law in the state.
Susan MacManus, a government professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa and an expert on Florida politics, said the impact of Puerto Ricans in the state has been “massive.” They now rival Cuban Americans in both numbers and political clout and have changed the politics of the state. Their influence is heightened by the fact that most of the Puerto Ricans in the state are clustered in the Tampa and Orlando areas. “This makes up the I-4 corridor,” said MacManus. “And it is imperative that anyone who goes campaigning in Florida -- you can’t just go to South Florida and visit the Cubans. You’ve got to come to Central Florida and visit the Puerto Ricans.”
And, she said, they are watching Obama’s trip to their homeland with great interest and a mix of pride and skepticism. “Because so much attention is paid to Mexican Americans and the Southwest, other Hispanic groups feel almost neglected,” she said. “So this visit is very important, not just to Puerto Ricans but to other non-Mexican-American Hispanics.”
Additionally, MacManus said, to Hispanics, “the personal touch is very important.” Latinos “are very tight-knit, family-oriented, social people who really like attention, and I think it matters a lot to them that he is going.”
It's been decades since other presidents visited Puerto Rico. Lyndon Johnson briefly stopped at an airbase on the island in 1968, and Gerald Ford brought the 1976 allied economic summit there. But neither was an official presidential visit whose main purpose was visiting Puerto Rico. That has not happened since a visit by President Kennedy on December 15 and 16, 1961. Kennedy made an overnight stay in the historic La Fortaleza executive mansion, which Obama was scheduled to visit.
The day after Obama returns to Washington, the White House will convene an economic development summit on the island to discuss the economic aspects of the task force report. At the top of the agenda will be the sorry jobs outlook in Puerto Rico since Obama took office.
When he was elected in November 2008, unemployment on the island was at 12.7 percent. It was 13.1 percent when he was inaugurated. A year later, in January 2010, it was up to 15.9 percent, and it was at the same figure in January 2011. But in just three months, it jumped to the current rate of 16.4 percent recorded in April. “The economic crisis on the island is very real and worse than it is in the United States,” said Falcon.