SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Wooing Hispanic voters back home, President Barack Obama kept his campaign pledge to become the first president since John F. Kennedy to make an official visit to this recession-battered U.S. territory. "The aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America," Obama declared Tuesday.
On a sweltering day, thousands crowded the main roads and waved flags as Obama's motorcade roared by. A huge banner filled eight stories of a building, featuring the images of Kennedy and Obama. "We are proud to be part of history," it said.
Puerto Ricans are an important component of the larger, fast-growing Hispanic population in the U.S. – now totaling 50 million – that Obama wants to mobilize for his re-election. Even though he spent mere hours in Puerto Rico, at one point savoring a local sandwich specialty, the visit was designed to lift the president's visibility and create goodwill far beyond this island, its grand colonial fortresses and it azure waters.
"Every day, Boricuas help write the American story," Obama said, using the term Puerto Ricans use to describe themselves.
Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential general elections, only in primaries, one of many factors that give rise to a sense of second-class citizenship among some here. But they can vote in the mainland, and Florida, a key presidential battleground, has the second-largest Puerto Rican population in the U.S., behind New York. Pennsylvania, another competitive state, ranks fourth in Puerto Rican population.
Hispanics accounted for more than half the U.S. population increase over the past decade. National exit polls showed that 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama in 2008, compared with 31 percent for the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, but some Hispanics have become disillusioned with Obama because of his failure to deliver on promises to overhaul immigration policy.
Obama, who visited as a candidate in May 2008, sought to assure his Puerto Rican listeners they were not forgotten by his administration.
In remarks at an arrival event at the airport in San Juan, Obama quickly turned to the decades-old debate about the island's status, which has some pushing for statehood or even independence. The president reaffirmed his support for a referendum in which island voters would resolve the matter for themselves, eliciting cheers when he said: "When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you."
The words could resonate not just here but with the millions of Puerto Rican voters on the mainland, including more than 800,000 in politically important Florida, where Obama stayed overnight Monday before flying here Tuesday morning. Democrats see the Puerto Ricans in Florida as a potential counterbalance to the larger, traditionally Republican Cuban-American community in a state Obama needs to win a second term.
About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland.
Obama talked about his commitment to including Puerto Rico in his administration's initiatives, such as the health care bill, and praised Puerto Ricans' cultural achievements and contributions to American society and the military. The president singled out Dallas Mavericks player J.J. Barea, a celebrity here as a Puerto Rican athlete on a championship team.
The president spoke in front of American and Puerto Rican flags lined side by side. Then his motorcade took him through sunny streets lined with palm trees as he headed from the airport to a visit with the island's Republican governor, Luis Fortuno.
At the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, Fortuno told Obama: "On behalf of the people of Puerto Rico we want to welcome you. I guess you saw a taste of it driving over here. We are proud to welcome you and we thank you for the visit."
"I cannot be more honored to be here," said the president, who also joked that he just wished he could jump in the inviting ocean.
Two other presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford, set foot in Puerto Rico after Kennedy's visit, but not as part of an official visit to interact with the island's elected officials. Johnson visited a military base in 1968 and Ford participated in an international economic summit on the island in 1976.
As Obama's motorcade approached, protesters with megaphones could be heard in the distance calling for "independencia para Puerto Rico" – independence for Puerto Rico.
While administration officials touted the visit as giving Obama a chance to interact with Puerto Ricans, he spent less than five hours on the island. Part of that time he was in a closed Democratic National Committee fundraiser, but he also sat for interviews with Puerto Rican journalists sure to give his visit a big splash in island media despite its brevity.
And, the president made time to mix informally with residents and drape himself with some potent elements of Puerto Rican culture, traveling with pop singer Marc Anthony and stopping for a sandwich at the Kasalta bakery, a popular lunch spot a couple blocks from the beach.
As customers snapped pictures with their cell phones, the president, in shirt sleeves, ordered the house specialty, a Medianoche sandwich – ham, pork and swiss with pickles and mustard on a sweet bread.
Some, however, never got a glimpsed of Obama. Alma Villafanez, a 41-year-old teacher, traveled several hours from the town of Orocovis in an unsuccessful effort to see the president at La Fortaleza. The police blocked access to the mansion's gate.
"Nevertheless, he should have asked for time to greet us, his primary voters," Villafanez said.
Still, Rhadames Urrutia, a 50-year-old teacher in a prison and union local president, said Obama already enjoys widespread popularity among Puerto Ricans.
"The enthusiasm wouldn't be the same if it was a different president," Urrutia said. "Obama is different for people here. He knows what it's like to work, he knows what it's like to be poor. We see him as one of us."
But even here Obama didn't escape the economic concerns that are his political sore spot heading into the 2012 elections. The recession hit Puerto Rico harder than the states, with unemployment rising to nearly 17 percent. It declined to 16.2 percent in April.
"In these challenging times, people on this island don't quit," Obama said in his speech. "We don't turn back. People in America don't quit. We don't turn back. We place our bets on entrepreneurs and on workers and on our families. We understand that there is strength in our diversity. We renew the American dream. We have done it before. We will do it again."
Fortuno said in an interview with The Associated Press that the economy is the biggest issue among islanders. Because they are U.S. citizens, immigration is not as potent a political subject as it is with other Hispanic groups.
The governor said he welcomed the attention his island is getting. "There is a heightened level of awareness about the importance of the Latino vote that hadn't existed for a while," Fortuno said.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.