SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - President Barack Obama told Puerto Ricans on Tuesday he's committed to the success and self-determination of the U.S. island territory, welcome words that could help him with Puerto Rican voters in all states as the 2012 election approaches.
Obama spoke to Puerto Ricans excited to host a U.S. president for the first time since John F. Kennedy stopped here in 1961, an event that's still remembered fondly. 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.
In remarks to a friendly crowd at a welcoming ceremony 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 hundreds of thousands in politically important Florida, where Obama stayed overnight Monday before flying here Tuesday morning.
About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, boosting a fast-growing Hispanic population that is becoming increasingly important in American politics.
Speaking at the arrival ceremony, Obama noted that he was making good on a campaign promise to visit Puerto Rico as president. He 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.
"Every day, Boricuas help write the American story," the president said, using a term for Puerto Ricans. His feel-good message included references to Puerto Rican foods and sprinkled in a little Spanish.
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.