ABC News’ Mary Bruce Reports:
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – In the first presidential address to Puerto Ricans since Kennedy’s visit in 1961, Obama courted voters in the U.S. island territory today, telling them that he’s committed to their self-determination. While the 3.7 million residence of Puerto Rico cannot vote in the general presidential election, the message could help him win support with Puerto Ricans in key swing states, such as Florida.
Today, Obama offered his support to allow residents of the island to determine their own future. “When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you,” he told supporters at a welcoming ceremony at the airport in San Juan.
The issue of statehood continues to divide the Island. Roughly half of Puerto Ricans support it, the other half are satisfied to remain a commonwealth.
While the president is here on an official White House visit, elements of his speech sounded more like a campaign fundraiser.
“Puerto Rico, I don’t need to tell you that we’re not there yet. We’re not where we need to be. But in these challenging times, people on this island don’t quit. 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. Muchas gracias,” Obama said.
As a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans have American citizenship, but lack voting representation in Congress and, while they can vote in a primary, they cannot cast votes in the general election. Today approximately 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S., more than on the island itself, making them an increasingly important block of Hispanic voters.
The president also highlighted Puerto Ricans who have impacted American society, including Marc Anthony, who attended today’s event, J.J. Barea, and the many who serve in the U.S. military.
“Every day, Boricuas help write the American story,” the president said.
Obama is the first president to address Puerto Ricans directly since President Kennedy’s visit in 1961. Presidents Ford and Johnson both visited the island after that, but on business not directly related to Puerto Rico.
This, however, is not Obama's first time on the island. He visited during the 2008 campaign and today said he was fulfilling his promise to return.
“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, too,” Obama said.
After his remarks, Obama visited La Fortaleza, the historic governor’s mansion, with Republican Governor Luis Fortuno.
The president also made a surprise stop at the Kasalta Bakery for lunch, a well-known neighborhood restaurant near the beaches of San Juan. Obama chose to have the specialty, a medianoche sandwich, a ham, pork, swiss cheese, pickle and mustard sandwich on sweet bread. He was joined by Senator Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the President of the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico.