SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — President Barack Obama will break a 50-year record Tuesday when he becomes the first president since John F. Kennedy to come to San Juan and actually meet with Puerto Ricans.
But experts say the whirlwind visit to an island crippled by a soaring murder rate, mass exodus and 16.2 percent unemployment has less to do with the island's overwhelming problems and much more to do with Florida's Interstate 4 corridor. The state's Puerto Rican population shot up 75 percent in the past decade, and Obama is eager to curry favor with first-time voters who have largely settled in Central Florida, supporters and critics agree.
"If there's a political motivation to this visit, it's legitimate: There are 3.8 million Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, and another 4 million in the United States," said Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat who is the island's non-voting representative in Congress. "If it's political, I like it. I welcome it. I'm going to campaign for him in Florida and other states where there are Hispanic voters."
Puerto Rico is the final leg of a trip that takes Obama to Durham, N.C., today to attend a meeting of the Jobs and Competitiveness Council before flying on to Miami for fundraisers and an overnight stay.
The recession that rocked the United States started even earlier in Puerto Rico, sending an estimated 365,000 middle-class professionals to Florida. While most descended on Orlando, Broward County also saw a 36 percent surge over the decade, according to the 2010 census.
Decidedly different than the flow of blue-collar islanders who came to the mainland in the '40s and '50s, these newcomers sport college degrees and are more interested in Puerto Rico's status than traditional Republican-Democratic party politics, experts say.
"There's a lot riding on this trip,'' said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, who is Puerto Rican and follows both Florida and island politics closely. "It's all about Florida. It has nothing to do with Puerto Rico or anything else."
There are now 857,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida, a population estimate that Ferre believes is undercounted by at least 20,000. With another 35,000 leaving the island each year, the former U.S. Senate candidate believes Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State could hover just under a million by next year's election.
"It's a swing state," Ferre said. "Nobody cares what the Puerto Ricans in New York have to say — because they know those are Democratic votes. Just like it doesn't matter what the Mexicans in Texas say, because those are guaranteed Republican votes. You can't win the presidency without winning Florida."
Puerto Ricans who live in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections. But their voting status changes when they move to the mainland, putting tens of thousands of new votes up for grabs. They are not all Democrats and tend to favor statehood for Puerto Rico, experts said.
"The Puerto Ricans in Florida have changed the ball game," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. "This is very much a political trip for Obama."
But Falcon said some aspects of the president's four-hour visit are puzzling. After giving remarks at the airport, Obama will attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Caribe Hilton Hotel and will meet with the Republican governor at the Fortaleza governor's mansion.
Gov. Luis Fortuño is a rising star in the Republican Party, and his name has been floated as a potential candidate for national office. The controversial former congressman has come under fire here for slashing public spending, "draconian cuts that should be antithetic to a Democratic president," Falcon said.
Obama will be accompanied on the trip by the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico, a commission formed by President Bill Clinton to tackle the island's thorny status issues.
Obama expanded the task force's mission, asking the members to take a broader look at problems plaguing the island. A wide-ranging report released in March made recommendations on everything from homeless veterans to broadband access, education and public health services for HIV patients.
"He's brought up a potpourri of things that need to be improved," said Puerto Rico's Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock, a pro-statehood Democrat. "He's made us in Puerto Rico see the forest, and not just the trees."
The task force also urged a solution to the status question by the end of next year. Puerto Ricans, the task force said, should vote whether to remain part of the United States, and Congress should honor its will.
The task force is criticized by those who favor Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, because it expressed a "marginal preference" for a two-part plebiscite that would first ask voters whether they wish to keep the current commonwealth status.
Spreading out the referendum in two parts would allow statehood advocates and independence activists to both answer "no." That would force a second question, asking voters whether they wanted statehood or independence, where statehood would win by a wide margin.
Past Puerto Rico referendums were evenly divided between statehood and commonwealth, with a small percentage favoring independence.
"It isn't for the task force to decide," Cecilia Muñoz, co-chair of the task force, said in an interview. "We were very, very respectful of the fact that this is something that can only be decided by the people of Puerto Rico. Our charge was to identify a pathway."
The task force, made up of representatives of every Cabinet agency — including one Puerto Rican — will remain an extra day for meetings.
"This visit is important, because Obama is the first sitting president to make an official visit in 50 years," said Muñoz, director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House. "It's one of the many ways that President Obama is engaging with people on the island."
Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford both stopped by during their presidencies, but their stop-overs were limited to military bases and an economic forum and weren't considered official visits.
McClintock said he expects "tens of thousands" of people to line the sides of the roads for a chance to get a glimpse of Obama, or at least Air Force One.
"The majority of Puerto Ricans treasure the opportunity," he said. "Ninety-five percent of the people here are very glad he's coming and proud that this visit is taking place in their lifetimes."