NEW YORK — From the Magic Kingdom to the Apollo Theater, President Barack Obama on Thursday made the case for American tourism and his own re-election bid, mingling his political and economic agendas as he tried to stay ahead of the Republicans chasing after his job.
"I hope you know that the values you cherish, what you stand for, what you believe in, are the things I cherish and I believe in and I'm willing to fight for," Obama said at Daniel, an exclusive Manhattan restaurant, in the first of four glitzy fundraisers.
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 singers Al Green and India.Arie.
Outside the theater, more than 100 people demonstrated on behalf of several groups, including Occupy Wall Street and MoveOn.org, and some carried signs that read "Obama Wall Street Stooge" and "Capitalism (equals) 'Democracy' for Billionaires."
Inside, Obama touted his administration's work on everything from health care to ending the Iraq war. But he warned an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,400 supporters that, "everything we did over the last three years is now at stake in this election."
At a separate fundraiser earlier in the night, Obama said the November election would be "as stark a choice as we have seen". He drew a contrast between the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls and 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, who Obama said shared some of his views on banning torture, climate change and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"If you've been listening to the Republican debates, they have moved," Obama said. "I've stayed here. They've gone in a different direction."
Obama's trip to Florida marked an attempt by the White House and his campaign to steal attention from Republicans vying for the GOP 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 GOP 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.
The efforts to boost tourism were praised by travel and tourism groups, but one lawmaker said the decision to relax tourist visas could undermine national security. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the administration was "pushing the envelope and using their authority beyond congressional intent," noting that only two of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks were interviewed by consular offices. He said Congress moved to require visa applicants to be interviewed as a result.
The White House says the travel and tourism industry represented 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and 7.5 million jobs in 2010. But the U.S. share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, due to increased competition and changes in global development, as well as security measures imposed after Sept. 11, 2001, according to the White House.
The approach was welcomed by Brazilian tourists Lilian Lara and Lindbergh Souza, who shopped along the resort's streets hours before the president's speech. Souza said the visa process was expensive, at $500, and time-consuming for Brazilians who don't live close to consuls in Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo. "The whole process took me six months," Souza said.
Associated Press writers Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., and Cristian Salazar in New York contributed to this report.
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