Music and applause greeted President Barack Obama when he touched down in Puerto Rico on Tuesday for the first official visit to the commonwealth since President John F. Kennedy traveled there in 1961.
It was Obama's second trip to the island. On his first visit, during his long primary battle against then-rival Hillary Clinton in 2008, he promised to return as president.
Gov. Luis Fortuno and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini joined singer Marc Anthony and others to greet the president on the tarmac and walk with him to a hangar where he delivered brief remarks thanking Puerto Rican veterans, artists and entrepreneurs for their contributions to America. He highlighted steps his administration has taken to improve life on an island hit hard by the recession -- like increasing access to broadband, investing in education and working to help grow the tourism, health care and clean energy industries.
"When I ran for president, I promised to include Puerto Rico, not just on my itinerary, but also in my vision for where our country needs to go," the president said, eliciting cheers from the crowd when he went on to use a local term for those who hail from the island. "We're giving Puerto Ricans the tools they need to build their own economic futures and this is how it should be, because every day Boricuas help write the American story," he said.
With changing demographics likely to play a key role in the next presidential election, many political observers saw the president's trip as a way to appeal to Puerto Rican voters on the mainland. Obama won strong support from Hispanic voters in 2008 and according to the 2010 Census, Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S. The Puerto Rican population grew by 36 percent to 4.6 million over the last decade. Puerto Ricans were the largest Hispanic group in six of the nine states in the Northeast and in one western state - Hawaii.
In an interview on MSNBC's Daily Rundown, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) made note of the 850,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida -- a state the White House is hoping to keep in the Democratic column in 2012. In that same interview, Gutierrez, who described Puerto Rico as a "colony" of the United States, said he supported independence for the island. Obama drew applause when he addressed the divisive issue of the island's status during his speech.
"We've addressed the question of political status," he said. "In March, a report from our presidential task force on Puerto Rican status provided a meaningful way forward on this question so the residents of the island can determine their own future. And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you."
That task force recommended that residents of Puerto Rico vote in two plebiscites - first on the question of whether they want to be part of the United States or be independent, and then to vote again on the available status options, in accordance with the outcome of the first vote. The report listed those status options as Statehood, Independence, Free Association, and Commonwealth. The task force said all relevant parties—the President, Congress, and the leadership and people of Puerto Rico— should work to ensure that Puerto Ricans were able to express their will about status options and have that will acted upon by the end of 2012 or soon after.
President Gerald Ford traveled to Puerto Rico in June of 1976 for an economic summit, but this is the first official visit there by a president since Kennedy who, upon arriving at the airport in San Juan, called Puerto Rico "an admirable bridge between Latin America and North America" and said it was "a great experience" to come to an island with a different tradition and history and be greeted in Spanish and "still be able to feel that I am in my country."
Obama flew to San Juan with Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi, who endorsed the then-senator during his 2008 run for president and served as co-chair of his primary campaign on the island, according to the congressman's website. Pierluisi, who attended the president's DNC fundraiser last night at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center, supports statehood for the island territory. As the island's representative in Congress, he's able to vote in committees but not on the House floor.
The president planned to spend about 5 hours on the island. After making brief remarks at the welcome ceremony, he toured Fortaleza, the historic governor’s mansion, then was scheduled to sit down for local interviews with El Nuevo Día and Univision of Puerto Rico and make a stop to raise money at a Democratic National Committee event, before heading home.