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.