Why Is Obama Going To Puerto Rico?

President Obama flies to Puerto Rico Tuesday, becoming the first U.S. president to officially visit the territory in 50 years. Melissa Block speaks with Frances Robles, correspondent with the Miami Herald, about what Obama's visit means to a growing Puerto Rican population — and his re-election efforts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Tomorrow, President Obama flies to Puerto Rico. It will be the first official visit from a U.S. president to the island since John F. Kennedy visited San Juan in 1961.

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President JOHN F. KENNEDY: It is a great experience to fly many hundreds of miles into the Atlantic Ocean, to come to an island and be greeted in Spanish, to come to an island which has an entirely different tradition and history.

BLOCK: President Obama is scheduled to spend just about four hours in Puerto Rico. And joining us from San Juan to talk about the brief visit is reporter Frances Robles of the Miami Herald. Frances, welcome to the program.

Ms. FRANCES ROBLES (Journalist, Miami Herald): Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: So the first official presidential visit in 50 years. What's the scene there in the capital?

Ms. ROBLES: Well, you know, first of all, I don't even know that I'm buying this first-official-visit-in-50-years thing because Johnson and Ford both came. I'm calling it the first official visit where they actually bothered to talk to Puerto Ricans. I think that's what it actually is.

BLOCK: Uh-huh.

Ms. ROBLES: But there's a lot of excitement here. You see a lot of big welcome signs, streets being paved and cleaned, and plants being planted, and all of that. So there's definitely a buzz in the air of a historic moment.

BLOCK: And why this trip? What are the issues?

Ms. ROBLES: The issues are huge. He's coming with his White House task force on Puerto Rico, which was created about 10 years ago to tackle Puerto Rico's status issues. I think those were considered so daunting that he actually charged the task force with broadening in scope.

So they put out a report in March that talked about everything from Internet access to public health issues and, of course, a 16 percent unemployment rate. Puerto Rico has a very high unemployment problem, and it has a very high murder rate problem. It has a huge exodus of people leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland. So there's a lot to tackle in four and a half hours.

BLOCK: That exodus that you're talking about, Frances, has a lot to do with some really striking numbers here, that there are more - many more Puerto Ricans now living in the United States, on the mainland, than in Puerto Rico itself. And that means that this visit has a whole lot to do with mainland politics.

Ms. ROBLES: Absolutely. One of the things that a lot of people don't realize is that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico do not have the right to vote for president. However, that same person gets on the American Airlines flight to Orlando, and they do have a right to vote.

So what you have is, for example, in the state of Florida, the number of Puerto Ricans from the 2000 census to the 2010 increased 75 percent. So that's tens and tens of thousands of people who all of a sudden, have votes that are up for grabs.

And they're not necessarily Democratic shoo-ins, and they're not Republican shoo-ins. These are votes that both parties are going to have to lure and are going to have to recruit. And really, at the end of the day, that's what this trip is about for President Obama.

BLOCK: So you're saying because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, if they establish residency in the United States, they can vote. And they become a huge, huge political force.

Ms. ROBLES: That's exactly right. I mean, remember, you can't win the presidency without winning Florida. And these are - Florida elections tend to be razor thin. So 100,000 or 200,000 Puerto Ricans could be the tipping point.

BLOCK: When you think about the Puerto Rican population in Florida now, living in Florida, what would the message be that President Obama could deliver that would be attractive to them, that would appeal to them?

Ms. ROBLES: What a lot of the experts say is that the Puerto Ricans who are recently arrived in Florida care more about the statehood, or common with the status issue, in Puerto Rico than they do about traditional Republican or Democratic Party politics.

The new-arrived people, they're very middle class, they're very professional, they tend to lean a little bit more towards statehood. So the statehood party message here is, if Obama says Puerto Rico should become a state, you know, you've got those votes in the bag.

BLOCK: Well, he won't have a lot of time on the island. What kind of reception do you think the president will get?

Ms. ROBLES: Well, Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said that he's expecting tens of thousands of people to line the highways. Perhaps that's why they're now paved and have plants on them, and they're clean. We'll see.

I don't know if they're being overly optimistic. I mean, they're clearly googly eyed, they're so excited about it - you know, at least the government officials are. And let's see if the people are as well.

BLOCK: OK. Frances Robles of the Miami Herald, who's in San Juan to cover President Obama's visit there tomorrow. Frances, thanks so much.

Ms. ROBLES: Thank you.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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