TAMPA, Fla. — Putting an election year spin on his international agenda, President Barack Obama on Friday cast Latin America's rapid rise as a business opportunity for the U.S. economy. On his way to a regional summit in Colombia, he told voters in Florida, "While I'm in Colombia talking with other leaders, I'm going to be thinking about you."
Obama's stop in Florida, a crucial state in the election, underscored White House efforts to keep the president's three-day trip to the Summit of the Americas focused squarely on the economy, the top issue for voters in a general election now fully under way.
But if some Latin American leaders get their way, Obama will be forced to engage on issues that are less politically palatable in the U.S.; namely, Washington's strained relationship with Cuba and the prospect of legalizing drugs.
The president steered clear of those matters as he kicked off his trip at the Port of Tampa, where about 40 percent of exports go to Latin America. Obama said economic growth in Central and South America has created a booming middle class with money to spend.
"We want them spending money on American-made goods so that American businesses can put more Americans back to work," said Obama, his shirt sleeves rolled up, surrounded by cranes and shipping containers.
Obama's re-election prospects are largely tied to the nation's unemployment rate, which has dipped to 8.2 percent. Yet, the job market remains fragile and millions of Americans are still out of work.
From Tampa, Air Force One continued south to the Colombian colonial-era port city of Cartagena, where the president was joining more than 30 leaders from the Western Hemisphere for the regional summit. Obama was to attend a leaders' dinner at the base of Cartagena's historic Spanish fortress, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
Obama's stop in Colombia is emblematic of his election-year foreign travel itinerary, which is limited to the international meetings U.S. presidents traditionally attend. The president had little planned in Cartagena outside the official summit events, except for meetings with some of the summit leaders and a visit to a historic church.
Obama's goal: Get in, get out and don't do anything that can create a political distraction back home.
Still, the president's focus on Latin America this weekend was expected to catch the attention of Hispanics in the U.S., an increasingly important voting bloc, especially in battleground states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado. More than 20 million Hispanics in the U.S. are eligible to vote.
Obama carried 67 percent of the Latino vote over Republican challenger John McCain in the 2008 election. With Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney having staked out a hard-line position on immigration during the GOP primary, the Obama campaign hopes to score overwhelming support from Hispanics again this November.
A Quinnipiac poll conducted earlier this year showed Obama with a sizeable 58 percent to 35 percent lead over Romney among registered Hispanic voters.
In Tampa, Obama acknowledged the commercial ties many Hispanics in the U.S. have with Latin American countries. He announced new initiatives to help Latino-owned small businesses, as well as other U.S. companies, get financing to expand their exports throughout the Western Hemisphere. And he pitched programs to help small businesses link up with foreign partners in the Americas.
The White House sees increases in the U.S. export market as a bright spot in an economic recovery that has weathered plenty of ups and downs. Administration officials say U.S. exports with the Western Hemisphere have grown by about 17 percent since 2010, with Latin America accounting for much of that increase.
Officials say new trade agreements Obama signed last year with Colombia and Panama will further boost U.S. economic ties with the region. Implementation of the Colombian accord is contingent on Colombia's government meeting certain labor rights conditions. The U.S. business community and many Colombian officials are hoping Obama will use his trip to announce that implementation of the trade deal can proceed.
Republicans say Obama allowed the trade agreements to languish during his first two years in office because of pressure from unions, which are generally skeptical of free trade. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday that the delay in passing the trade deals "weakened our relationship with Latin America to the detriment of the national economy and Florida's economy."
The U.S. has continuously sought to block Cuba from the Summit of the Americas, saying the communist-run island does not abide by the meeting's democratic standards. But some Latin American leaders have grown increasingly impatient with the tensions between Washington and Havana and have made a fresh push for Cuba to be included in future meetings.
Obama was likely to be at odds with some regional partners on the issue of drug legalization. Some Latin American leaders increasingly see decriminalization as a possible path for containing the region's violent drug cartels.
The White House says that while Obama does not support decriminalization, he does think the debate is worth having, if only to highlight the problems that would arise from legalizing drugs.
Kuhnhenn reported from Tampa, Pace reported from Cartagena, Colombia. AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.