Updated, 12:40 p.m.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — President Obama made the first appearance by a U.S. president in Puerto Rico since 1976 on Tuesday, flying here for a symbolic visit that may also help his 2012 presidential reelection prospects.
“When I came here to campaign [in 2008], I promised I would return as president of the United States,” Obama said in a speech in the airport hanger at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, as a crowd of more than 1,000 cheered. “And although my hair is a little grayer than during my first visit, I am glad to be able to keep that promise to the people of Puerto Rico.”
Standing in front of a group of American and Puerto Rican flags, Obama emphasized the ties of the U.S. commonwealth to the rest of the country, telling the crowd that “every day Puerto Ricans contribute” to the U.S. He specifically noted people from the island serving in Afghanistan, as well as J.J. Barea, a basketball player on the Dallas Mavericks, who just won the NBA championship.
“That guy can play,” the president said.
He also tied the island to the challenges of the U.S., saying his administration wanted to improve the economy, health and education here. “We are going to put people back to work in Puerto Rico and all across America,” Obama said.
Later on Tuesday, the president will visit La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion, and then attend a campaign fundraiser before departing for Washington.
The five hours Obama will spend here is more attention than the island has received from a U.S. president in decades. Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford both came to the island while in office, but Obama will be the first president at La Fortaleza since John F. Kennedy.
While Obama cast his trip as keeping a pledge to visit the island that he made during his 2008 presidential run, when he unsuccessfully campaigned here during the Democratic primaries, the visit had obvious political overtones. While Puerto Ricans who live on the island can’t vote, those who have moved to one of the 50 states can.
Both parties view the more than 4.6 million Puerto Ricans as an important voting block, particularly in Florida, a key swing state for Obama’s 2012 campaign.
“The large and growing Puerto Rican population in Central Florida will be key to winning the state in 2012,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic-leaning NDN, which has advised the party on how to reach the Latino voters.
The island has a complicated relationship with the U.S. government. As a U.S. commonwealth but not a state, people born in Puerto Rico automatically have American citizenship and can serve in the armed forces. But the island does not have voting representatives in Congress and its citizens can’t vote for in the presidential election.
That status is divisive here, as many prefer remaining a commonwealth, while others would like to try to become a U.S. state and another small block would prefer complete independence. Following a pattern of presidents Democratic and Republican, Obama has not taken an official position on the issue, instead calling for Puerto Rico to hold a plebiscite to resolve its status.
The island is struggling economically; unemployment is more than 16 percent. That has caused many Puerto Ricans to move north, and there now about a million more Puerto Ricans in the United States than on the island.
They are heavily concentrated in two areas: New York City and Florida. In the Sunshine State, Cuban Americans have kept their historical link to the Republican Party, while Mexican Americans typically lean Democratic. But the estimated 847,000 Puerto Ricans, who largely live around Orlando and Tampa, have emerged as a growing part of the state’s electorate.