LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- President Barack Obama planted his political flag in Florida yesterday ahead of the state's Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary, promising a fresh boost to the economy by making it easier for foreign tourists to travel to the United States.
Obama sought his piece of Florida's political spotlight with a high-profile appearance at Walt Disney World, where he announced initiatives aimed at making it easier for citizens of China and Brazil to visit the country.
"America is open for business," Obama declared against the backdrop of Disney's Cinderella castle and picture-perfect blue skies. "We want to welcome you."
Beyond offering an opportunity to talk about the economy, Obama's trip marked an attempt by the White House and his campaign to steal attention from the Republican nomination battle.
In recent weeks, Obama held a live video conference with Iowa voters during the Republican caucuses, Vice President Joe Biden held a similar event with voters in New Hampshire on their primary night, and next week Obama travels to Nevada, next on the primary calendar after Florida.
Obama was greeted in the Orlando area by ads from Republican front-runner Mitt Romney blaming him for the state's struggling economy. With a win in Florida's primary, the former Massachusetts governor could take a big step toward the nomination.
While Obama carried Florida in 2008, the state is a top target for Republicans in the November elections. Florida twice backed George W. Bush, providing the decisive electoral votes in the cliffhanger 2000 election.
Tourism is a key component to the economy in Florida, which has been battered by 10 percent unemployment and rampant home foreclosures.
A White House official said more than 1 million U.S. jobs could be created over the next decade, according to industry projections, if the nation increases its share of the international travel market.
The tourism initiative is part of an executive order Obama signed. Its goal is to boost non-immigrant 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 United States 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.