NEW YORK — President Barack Obama, mixing an economic appeal with presidential politics, pitched tourism and mingled with campaign donors on Thursday, tending to political concerns with an eye on upcoming Republican primaries.
Presidential politics were not far from the surface during events on both ends of the East Coast, as Obama sought a piece of Florida's political spotlight ahead of a Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary with a high-profile appearance at Walt Disney World. Against the backdrop of Disney's Cinderella castle, Obama announced initiatives aimed at making it easier for citizens of China and Brazil to visit the United States.
"America is open for business," Obama said under Florida's picture-perfect blue skies. "We want to welcome you."
Later, the president told top donors in New York that he had made American foreign policy stronger during his first term, vowing that U.S. support for Israel's security is "nonnegotiable." He also defended his administration's approach to Iran, saying even Tehran has acknowledged that U.S. sanctions are having an impact.
The New York itinerary included a $35,800 per ticket fundraiser at the home of film director Spike Lee and an event starting at $100 per ticket at the famed Apollo Theater featuring performances by Al Green and India.Arie. Obama, who raised more than $220 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee through the end of 2011, told supporters that the 2012 campaign would be difficult.
"This is still going to be a tough race, regardless of who they nominate," he said.
Obama's trip to Florida marked an attempt by the White House and his campaign to steal attention from Republicans vying for the Republican presidential nomination. In recent weeks Obama held a live video conference with Iowa voters during the Republican caucus, Vice President Joe Biden held a similar event with voters in New Hampshire on the night of the state's first-in-the-nation primary and next week Obama will travel to Nevada, which follows Florida on the primary calendar.
Obama was greeted in the Orlando area by ads from Republican front-runner Mitt Romney blaming the president for the state's struggling economy. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, could take a major step toward securing the Republican nomination with a win in Florida's Jan. 31 primary contest.
"I have a simple question for you: Where are the jobs?" Romney wrote in an open letter to the president on Thursday running as an ad in the Tampa Bay Times. In a conference call with reporters, Romney said Obama was "speaking from Fantasyland."
While Obama carried Florida in 2008, the state is a top target for Republicans in the November elections. Florida twice backed Republican George W. Bush, providing the decisive electoral votes in the cliffhanger 2000 election that was decided after a 36-day recount.
Tourism is a key component to the economy in Florida, which has been battered by 10 percent unemployment and rampant home foreclosures.
The White House said more than 1 million U.S. jobs could be created over the next decade, according to industry projections, if the U.S. increases its share of the international travel market.
The tourism initiative is part of an executive order Obama signed. Its goal is to boost nonimmigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year; expand a Visa Waiver Program that allows participating nationals to travel to the U.S. for stays of 90 days or less without a visa; appoint a new group of chief executives to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board; and direct an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including promoting national parks and other sites.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider contributed to this report.