At P.R. Visit, Obama Pledges Economic Support

President Obama made a quick trip to Puerto Rico Tuesday. The visit was long on symbolism but short on substance. Puerto Rico suffered more than most of the country during the recent recession, and Obama pledged to continue economic support for the island. The president's message was also aimed, at least in part, at the growing number of Puerto Rican voters on the mainland — especially in Florida.


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And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama made a quick trip to Puerto Rico today. The visit was long on symbolism, but short on substance. Puerto Rico was hit very hard during the recent recession, and the president pledged to continue economic support for the island.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the president's message was also aimed - at least, in part - at the growing number of Puerto Rican voters on the mainland, especially in Florida.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford both made stops in Puerto Rico, but Mr. Obama's was the first official presidential visit since John F. Kennedy traveled to the island 50 years ago.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: Buenos tardes.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

HORSLEY: The president bounded on stage in an airport hangar that was decked out with American and Puerto Rican flags.

(Soundbite of speech)

President OBAMA: It is good to be back in Puerto Rico.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

HORSLEY: Campaigning on the island back in 2008, Mr. Obama had promised to return when he was president. He was greeted today by pop star Marc Anthony, and he praised the contributions of Puerto Rican artists, athletes and military veterans.

President OBAMA: Their willingness to sacrifice is as American as apple pie or as arroz, corn ...

HORSLEY: For some, today's ceremony was a welcome distraction from tough economic times. Unemployment in Puerto Rico tops 16 percent.

President OBAMA: So I know that today, a lot of folks are asking some of the same questions here on the island as they're asking in Indiana or California or in Texas. How do I make sure my kids get the kind of education that they need? How can I put away a little money for retirement? How can I fill up my gas tank? How can I pay the bills?

HORSLEY: Tomorrow, the Commerce Department will host an economic summit in Puerto Rico, looking for ways to promote jobs in green energy, health care and tourism. But the administration's options are limited - as they are on the mainland - by the pressure to keep federal spending in check. The tough economy on the island has prompted more Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland - many to Florida, which is sure to be a battleground again in next year's presidential race.

Mr. ANGELO FALCON (National Institute For Latino Policy): One of the things that's been a real game-changer, in terms of the politics of Florida, has been the dramatic rise in the Puerto Rican population there. And it's a group that's much more supportive than the Cubans of the Democratic Party.

HORSLEY: Angelo Falcon, who heads the National Institute for Latino Policy, says Florida's Puerto Rican population has jumped by 75 percent in the last decade. Puerto Ricans helped Mr. Obama win the state in 2008, but Falcon warns Democrats not to take these voters for granted.

Mr. FALCON: In Florida, the Puerto Rican population is a different mix of folks - social classes, of politics - and so what you wind up with is a population there that can go Democratic, but the Democratic Party's really going to have to work hard to get that support.

HORSLEY: In his 11-minute speech today, the president steered clear of any controversy, including whether the island should remain a commonwealth, become a state, or break off from the U.S. all together. Mr. Obama stuck with a position taken by a White House task force earlier this year - that it's up to the people of Puerto Rico themselves to decide.

(Soundbite of speech)

President OBAMA: And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

HORSLEY: The task force recommended that any clear decision should be acted on by the end of 2012. That would be after next year's presidential election.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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