WASHINGTON — Arriving in Florida just days before the Republican candidates who want his job begin to court the state's voters, President Barack Obama on Thursday is expected to tout a plan that he says will help a region whose economy is heavily dependent on visitors.
Obama, set to visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, is expected to announce a strategy to boost travel and tourism jobs in the United States. The proposal, which is widely anticipated by the travel industry, is expected to expedite the visa application process for travelers from high-demand countries such as Brazil and China.
But the president will find a far different Florida than the one he campaigned in and won four years ago. Unemployment in the state, which peaked at 12 percent one year ago and is now at 10 percent, was just 4.8 percent in January 2008.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows Florida voters disapprove of Obama's job performance and narrowly prefer Republican Mitt Romney in a theoretical match-up. Although the poll has been criticized for over-sampling Republicans, a separate poll this week commissioned by the Everglades Foundation and conducted by Republican pollsters The Tarrance Group found similar results: Obama was up 46 percent to Romney's 45 percent, with 9 percent of voters undecided.
The Florida trip — one of many the president has made recently to highly contested states, including North Carolina and Virginia — already has been derided as a campaign swing by Republicans. Obama will swoop into another battleground state, Nevada, just days before its Feb. 4 primary.
Republican National Committee spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said Wednesday that Floridians "know the true motivation behind this visit."
"The president is in a free fall in Florida and is doing all that he can to save his job," Tronovitch said. "Unfortunately, it seems as though voters will just get another campaign speech from a president who is more concerned about his own job than the millions of unemployed."
That was echoed by the Romney campaign, which has begun running television ads in advance of the Jan. 31 primary, including Spanish-language ads that feature the endorsement of prominent Cuban-American Republicans.
"He's coming to Florida because he knows he's in trouble here," said Romney's Florida spokesman, Ryan Williams. "He knows that voters in the Sunshine State are fed up."
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who lives in Orlando and who faces re-election this fall on the same ticket as the president, will not be attending the event at Walt Disney World. A spokesman said Nelson already was booked at an event in Sarasota.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the president's travel to the nation's biggest battleground state, brushing off suggestions it was politically motivated or timed to the Republican presidential primary.
"This president, as every president is, is president of all the United States of America, of all the people in the country," Carney said. "And he's going to travel around the country to talk about the issues that are important to Americans in every state, including, most importantly, economic growth and job creation."
Carney also said it was "obvious when you're making a tourism and travel announcement that one of the premiere sites of the U.S. tourism industry is Orlando. So it seems pretty self-evident that you would do that."
Carney said Obama would "unveil a strategy that will significantly help boost tourism and travel, which is an important and sometimes overlooked sector in the U.S. economy." The action will fall under the president's so-called "We Can't Wait" program — executive actions that don't require congressional approval.
Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer for the U.S. Travel Association, said he expects from Obama's visit to Orlando "a real embracing by the administration of the value that travel can have in putting people back to work and really kick-starting communities across the country."
The industry has long supported streamlining the visa application process, saying that delays in processing travelers who want to come from Brazil, China and India have made the United States appear unwelcoming to visitors from countries with growing middle classes and the financial means to travel. The State Department has announced plans to add consular officers and conduct visa interviews by video conference in an effort to reduce the application time — as long as 100 days in some countries.
Even as global travel increased over the past 10 years, travel from international destinations to the United States declined in part because of the security measures in place in the United States. It wasn't until the end of 2010 that the U.S. finally welcomed as many visitors as in 2000, Freeman said.
Every 35 new foreign visitors create one U.S. job, Freeman said. When visitors do travel to the United States, they spend a lot of money, often in excess of $5,000, he said. And it's not just on lodging, food and transportation.
"Shopping is the No. 1 activity of many of those travelers," Freeman said. "The money from these travelers permeates our economy. We can't have enough of these people."
(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY