TAMPA — President Barack Obama will return to Florida on Friday for the second time in four days, this time at the Port of Tampa to announce initiatives to promote trade with Latin America on his way to the Summit of the Americas in Colombia.
It will mark the third time this week that an Obama stops in Florida. On Tuesday, the president was in South Florida campaigning and delivering a speech to students. On Thursday, first lady Michelle Obama will arrive at Naval Air Station Jacksonville to honor military families.
Administration officials say Friday afternoon's visit, which is not open to the public, is no campaign stop. Florida is just an obvious place to promote opportunities with increasingly important trading partners, they said.
"Any observer of the relationship between the United States and the Americas knows that Florida really is in many respects the connective tissue that links the U.S. economy to the Latin American economy," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "If you're looking for a venue to highlight the ties … Florida is the obvious choice."
It also happens to be one of the main battlefronts expected in the November election and a focal point of the Obama campaign.
Republican Party leaders called the effort to characterize this next swing through the state as anything but a campaign stop a stretch at best.
"It's getting a little ridiculous at this point," said Brian Hughes, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida. "The reality here is, we have a president and administration willing to invent so-called official events for the purposes of spending multiple days in a swing state campaigning and doing it on the taxpayer dime."
Miami Republican strategist Ana Navarro said she wished the president had shown the frugality to time his trade initiative with Tuesday's romp through South Florida.
"If it looks like a campaign stop, smells like a campaign stop and talks like a campaign stop, then it's a campaign stop," she said of Friday's port visit. "I can only hope that some of the initiatives he announces lead to something more than a pretty campaign picture in terms of employment and increased trade in Florida."
Eric Jotkoff, Florida press secretary for the Obama campaign, referred a call for comment back to the White House.
Friday's visit — four months before the Republican National Convention in Tampa — marks the 16th time Obama has dropped by the Sunshine State since his inauguration, and the third trip in two months.
And it's not likely to be the last as he and likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney compete for Florida's 29 electoral votes.
For the incumbent, that means balancing the needs of his campaign with his work as president to shrink the unemployment rate.
As the campaign heats up, he's likely to face increasing scrutiny that official business is indeed official business, especially when trips aboard Air Force One run $179,750 per flight hour.
While at the port, Obama plans to highlight gains in trade with Latin American nations that are growing quickly and, compared with other parts of the world, weathered the recession reasonably well.
He will also announce plans to assist small business in particular in getting in on that trade, especially given the familial and ethnic ties so many business owners in the United States have with parts of Latin America.
While Rhodes offered limited detail, he said assistance could come in the form of loan guarantees to small-business owners, rather than a direct cash infusion. It likely will mean training assistance in setting up export sales and helping to establish relations between entrepreneurs and people who might like to buy what they're selling.
One area of potential: opening doors for people who plan and build roads and sewer systems in nations with a great need for new infrastructure.
"Often you have big businesses in the United States who have a long experience in pursuing exports," Rhodes said. "But small businesses, which support a lot of our job creation, need the benefit of government help to get into those markets."
A spokesman for the Port of Tampa said its executive director, Richard Wainio, is its point person to discuss trade with Latin America, but he was unavailable because he is in Central America. The spokesman provided a memo with some often recited trade details about the port.
Today, about 40 percent of exports that flow through the Port of Tampa go to Latin American nations. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are three of the port's five top trading partners.
Rhodes said U.S. exports within the Western Hemisphere grew by 17 percent between 2010 and 2011, with Latin America accounting for much of that growth.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]