Obama heads to Puerto Rico, with eye on 2012

June 13, 2011

By Dave Boyer-The Washington Times

In a trip heavy with implications for 2012, President Obama will visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday with an eye toward impressing enfranchisedPuerto Ricans on the mainland U.S.

The White House is billing Mr. Obama’s trip as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the last official visit to Puerto Rico by a sitting president, President Kennedy in 1961. (Presidents Johnson and Fordmade brief, unofficial trips to the island).

But Mr. Obama’s visit also underscores Puerto Rico’s growing influence on electoral politics.

Although the territory’s residents, who are U.S. citizens, cannot vote in presidential general elections, there are 4.6 million people of Puerto Rican descent in the U.S. who can vote. About 850,000 Puerto Ricanslive in the battleground state of Florida, and the swing state of Pennsylvania now counts Hispanics as more than 5 percent of potential voters.

“This trip is a very political trip, for those two states in particular,” saidMatt Barreto, a pollster on Hispanic issues and a political science professor at the University of Washington. “The population in central Florida has been growing rapidly, and Pennsylvania has a very big Puerto Rican population. It’s a symbolic step for him to say, ‘I care about the island of Puerto Rico.’ “

But others say Mr. Obama needs to do more than simply to appeal to Puerto Rican pride on this visit. Jamie Miller, a Republican strategist based in Sarasota, Fla., said Puerto Ricans in his state are concerned about the lack of jobs like everyone else.

“I don’t think they’re going to fall for just one parlor trick to garner their votes,” Mr. Miller said. “This election is going to be about jobs. This president has been a dismal failure in creating private-sector jobs.”

Mr. Obama’s visit could have an impact especially in the Orlando, Fla., region, where many Puerto Ricans have settled. The Democrat-leaning bloc of voters has gained enough numbers and clout in recent years to rival the Cuban-American community in South Florida, which traditionally votes Republican.

Analysts say Cuban-Americans typically turn out to vote in larger percentages, and one concern for Democrats is to register more Puerto Rican-Americans to vote. The Obama campaign is ramping up efforts to do that.

Mr. Obama campaigned in Puerto Rico in the 2008 Democratic primary (islanders can vote in presidential primaries, which are run by the two parties), but he lost there to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the time, Mr. Obama promised to return if he won the presidency. He has expressed the desire to strengthen economic ties with the island, where the recession hit especially hard. Puerto Rico has been awarded more than $2.6 billion in stimulus money, nearly all of it in grants.

While demonstrating his concern for Puerto Rico this week, Mr. Obamalikely will avoid wading too deeply into the island’s politics. The territory’s political status is always a touchy subject.

The White House Task Force on Puerto Rico in March endorsed a two-phase referendum for self-determination by islanders, without setting a firm timetable.

The territory is deeply divided on the issue. The president of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party, Fernando Martin, called the report “denigrating.” Gov. Luis Fortuno, a Republican, said the option of retaining Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status is not viable. An opposition candidate for governor likened Puerto Rico’s colonial status to slavery.

To read more, visit: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/jun/12/obama-heads-to-puerto-rico-with-eye-on-12/


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