(Larry Downing, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington and San Juan — President Obama on Tuesday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Puerto Rico in a half-century, lauding the contributions residents have made in writing "the American story."
The visit fulfilled a campaign pledge made in 2008, when the island territory's votes were contested in the Democratic primaries, and signals the importance of the Latino vote to the president's reelection strategy for 2012.
"When I ran for president, I promised to include Puerto Rico not just on my itinerary, but also in my vision of where our country needs to go. And I am proud to say that we've kept that promise," he said.
More than 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, an increase of 35.7% in the last decade, according to new census data.
Obama flew to San Juan from Florida, which boasts the second-highest number of Puerto Ricans outside the island: more than 847,000. Another battleground state, Pennsylvania, ranks fourth with about 366,000.
Obama referred in his remarks to a report from his task force on Puerto Rico's status, which he said "provided a meaningful way forward" that would allow residents to determine its relationship with the United States government.
"When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you," he said.
After speaking at the airport, Obama traveled through streets lined with banners that featured John F. Kennedy -- the last president to visit -- and Obama, along with the slogan, "We are proud to be part of history." He visited with Gov. Luis Fortuno at La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion, joking that he wished he could take a dip in the ocean.
He also stopped for a sandwich at a local restaurant in Old San Juan, where a patron said Obama should have spent more time with the people of the island.
"People feel this is not an important visit. It is important for him to get some money but he is not talking with the people," Lydia Gonzalez said.
Obama will also attend a fundraiser for his reelection campaign here. But the White House downplayed the political nature of the trip.
"The president is making the first official visit since 1961 of a United States President to the island. He thinks the issue of resolving its status is very important, of dealing with the economic hardships on the island are very important, and he’s very excited about being here," press secretary Jay Carney said.