- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

Visiting a tourism-dependent state crucial to his re-election hopes, President Obama announced in Florida Thursday that he is easing travel restrictions on foreign citizens who want to come to the United States.

“I want more tourists here tomorrow,” Mr. Obama said as he stood before the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando. “I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world.”

Nearly 60 million international visitors came to the U.S. in 2010, a record level and a 9 percent increase over 2009. But senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said the U.S. lost about 30 percent of its global market share of tourism from 2000 to 2010, partly because of increased competition and tighter security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The president said his actions, which include expanding a swifter Global Entry program for frequent visitors and speeding up visa processing in China and Brazil, are aimed at boosting the economy and creating more jobs in the tourism industry.

“The more folks who visit America, the more folks we get back to work; it’s that simple,” Mr. Obama said. “We want them to spend money here, in Orlando, in Florida.”

Mr. Obama said his administration can loosen the rules for foreign visitors while protecting America’s borders.

“There’s no reason we can’t do both,” he said.

The choice of Florida for his announcement was rich with campaign overtones. The Orlando region is home to a large Hispanic population, a group the president’s campaign sees as essential for a victory this fall.

Mr. Obama won the state by about 2.5 percentage points in 2008, but polls show him struggling this year in the Sunshine State. The president is either trailing or tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, and the unemployment rate in Florida is 10 percent, among the highest in the nation.

Mr. Romney poked fun at the president’s appearance at the theme park.

“Interestingly, he has chosen Fantasyland as the place for his address,” Mr. Romney told reporters on a conference call. “Perhaps there’s some poetic justice in the president speaking from Fantasyland because, I’m afraid, he’s been speaking from Fantasyland for some time now. He continues to speak about his solid economic record, and as you know, that’s out of touch with reality. He’s trying to defend a record of 1.7 million jobs lost during his administration, unemployment above 8 percent for 35 straight months.”

Mr. Obama’s move also provoked a sharp reaction from the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tougher border and immigration controls.

“The changes the president is making to the visa issuance process, without congressional approval, weaken important safeguards against terrorism and increase the potential for more visa over-stayers,” FAIR President Dan Stein said in a statement. “The longstanding requirement for an in-person interview allows trained consular officers to identify people who might pose a threat to national security or who are likely to remain in the United States illegally.”

The president portrayed his efforts as part of his “We Can’t Wait” campaign to take executive action to improve the economy without the help of an uncooperative Congress.

Mr. Obama also joked about his appearance at Disney World.

“I am excited to see Mickey,” the president said. “It’s always nice to meet a world leader who has bigger ears than me.”