WASHINGTON – This year the stakes are higher.
President Barack Obama's trip to the Summit of the Americas in Colombia will be watched by the more than 50 million U.S. Latinos — 21 million of them eligible voters vital to the success of his reelection campaign.
As high-level international conferences go, President Obama's trip to Colombia is a nod to Woody Allen's maxim that "80 percent of success is just showing up." It's a principle that has value not only in Latin America, but also here at home.
Obama also is kicking off the trip with a stop Friday in Tampa Bay, Fla., drawing attention to the benefits of trade with Latin America in a crucial swing state in the general election. The brief detour underscores the administration's attempts to cast the trip on domestic terms and to improve the president's tenuous stance with the U.S. business community.
"Florida, I think, is both an economic and people-to-people hub in terms of connecting the United States and Latin America," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, previewing the president's trip.
Such outreach to the U.S.'s southern neighborhood is not unique to Obama. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him also "understood that the right Latin American policies and relations could match the right domestic relations toward Latinos and immigrants," said Nelson Cunningham, who served in the Clinton White House as a special adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs.
Still, some of the thorniest issues Obama could confront in Cartagena — U.S. immigration policy and U.S. policy toward Cuba — present a political conundrum for Obama at home even as Latin American leaders express frustration with lack of movement by his administration on either front.
"The U.S. position on these troublesome issues — immigration, drug policy, and Cuba — has set Washington against the consensus view of the hemisphere's other 34 governments," concluded the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based center for policy analysis, in a report prepared in advance of the summit.
What's more, Obama will arrive in Colombia with larger and more immediate foreign policy entanglements facing him, including North Korea's failed launch of a long-range rocket Thursday, a budding though fragile truce in Syria, and international talks in Turkey over Iran's nuclear program. Indeed, Obama had a similar experience last year, traveling to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, a trip overshadowed by U.S. bombing of Libya as part of an international military campaign to remove Moammar Gadhafi.
That said, Obama is on his fifth visit to the region and the past two weeks in Washington featured a joint meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a separate meeting this week with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
In that sense, Obama's role as host and as visitor to the region's leaders can pay dividends.
"As our Latino population continues to grow, there is going to be a higher premium put by those voters on efforts to make sure that relations with the U.S. and the rest of Latin America are strong." said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a think tank that studies U.S. Latino voters and relations with Latin America.
Polls show that a vast majority of Latino voters support Obama, who carried 67 percent of the Latino vote over Republican John McCain in 2008. But Obama's deportation policies and lack of progress on changing immigration laws have softened his support, and Obama aides are determined to re-energize that voting bloc in time for the November election.
In toss-up states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada, the Latino vote could be essential.
"If you look at where Latino voters exist now in the United States, they are in great numbers in a lot of the states that are going to be bellwethers," said Cunningham, now managing partner of McLarty Associates, an international advisory firm.
He noted that Democrats in 2008 made great efforts to mobilize Hispanic votes in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"I would think that that would be very much a part of the administration's policy this time around," he said.
Rosenberg pointed out that there are 50,000 Colombian immigrants in Florida alone, a bloc with a vested interest in Obama's trip that could help decide an election in a close contest.
If Latinos are paying attention to Obama's trip, so are many in the business community who have been pressing the administration to expand trade. They will be keeping a close watch on whether Obama will announce that Colombia has met the labor rights conditions that were required under a free trade agreement approved by Congress and signed by Obama last year.
Obama is under pressure from U.S. labor leaders to put off that announcement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has sent a delegation to Cartagena to participate in a regional CEOs summit on Saturday, is pushing Obama to implement the trade deal.
White House officials this week sidestepped questions about what the president might do, but they did note that he will be accompanied by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a sign that the issue will not be far from his mind.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.