TAMPA — Surrounded by shipping containers at the Port of Tampa, President Barack Obama on Friday touted his efforts to expand trade opportunities and rev up the American economy.
The quick stop in the biggest battleground region of America's biggest battleground state came as the president was heading toward Cartagena, Colombia, for the summit of Western Hemisphere leaders. It was an official White House visit but had the feel of a campaign rally.
"While I'm in Colombia talking with other leaders, I'm going to be thinking about you," Obama, his shirt sleeves rolled up, told at least 200 people gathered at the port's container terminal. "I want us selling stuff, and I want us putting more Americans back to work."
He touted trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama he signed into law to promote exports, saying the country is on track to meet his goal of doubling exports by 2015.
"Already our exports to the Western Hemisphere are up by 46 percent since 2009," he said. "That's obviously important to Tampa. Tampa is one of the biggest ports in the country, and a lot of the business being done here has to do with trade between us and Latin America. So the fact that it has gone up 46 percent since 2009 is a big deal for Tampa. In Florida, exports to this region are up nearly 30 percent."
Republicans wasted no time noting that those trade agreements had been stalled for years due to opposition from Democrats, who cited labor and human rights concerns about Columbia.
"President Obama's recent decision to focus on trade — a vital component of Florida's economy — comes three years too late," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a statement released by the Mitt Romney campaign. "President Obama missed several opportunities early in his administration to secure quick passage of trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, which together will create thousands of jobs here in Florida."
The president crossed paths with one of his fiercest critics, Gov. Rick Scott, who greeted Obama and Air Force One at Tampa International Airport. Scott, who was at the airport conducting one of his work days, presented the president with a Tampa Bay Rays cap.
At the port, Obama took a 10-minute tour of the container terminal, chatting with workers and marveling at the five-story-tall cranes.
"I was hoping to try out one of the cranes," he quipped. "Secret Service wouldn't let me. They don't let me have fun. They were more concerned about your safety than mine, though. They didn't want me messing anything up."
He noted in an eight-minute speech that his administration has launched the "Small Business Network of the Americas" to give small businesses access to foreign markets.
"We've gone through three very tough years with this global financial crisis," he said. "And as I travel around the country, and I talk to our workers, and I talk to our businesses, you can't help but have confidence. We don't quit. We are resilient. We stay with it. We are the most inventive country in the world. We've got the best entrepreneurs in the world. We've got the best universities in the world. We've got the best research in the world. We've got the best infrastructure in the world, and we're going to keep on at it and make sure that the 21st century is the American century, just like the 20th century."
With the general election campaign under way, almost everything the president does has political overtones, and Friday's event — the president's second Florida visit this week — was no exception. Hispanic voters are a key piece of the Florida electorate, and Obama's highlighting his outreach to Central and South America makes for good politics. More than 50,000 Colombians alone live in Florida.
The Republican National Committee dismissed Friday's visit as a taxpayer-funded campaign stop aimed at fooling Floridians that Obama has taken the lead on Latin America.
"In reality, President Obama's irresponsible policies have weakened our relationship with Latin America to the detriment of the national economy and Florida's economy," said RNC chairman Reince Priebus. "President Obama's disingenuous and downright false rhetoric is the trademark of a failed presidency. Successful incumbents can run on their records, but because of his failed policies, President Obama is running from his record."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]