Obama pressed on failures at Univision forum
By REID J. EPSTEIN | 9/20/12 5:07 PM EDT
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – President Barack Obama on Thursday faced some of the toughest questioning of his reelection campaign to date, pressed repeatedly on his failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform and other unmet promises from his 2008 run.
The Univision presidential forum at the University of Miami here kicked off with grilling on another topic which brought mounting criticism from Republicans Thursday: The government’s decision to label as a terrorist attack the violence at the consulate in Benghazi which killed American Christopher Stevens.
Asked why the United States was not better prepared, with better security at its embassies on the Sept. 11 anniversary, Obama responded by repeating the admonitions about not tolerating violence, but continued to discuss the incident in the context of the controversial video depicting scenes from the life of Mohammed.
“This is obviously something that is used as excuse by some to carry out inexcusable violent acts on westerners or Americans,” Obama said, “and my number one priority is to keep our diplomats safe and our embassies safe.”
The president did not go as far as had his press secretary, Jay Carney, who earlier in the day told reporters on the flight from Washington that the president considers the attacks last week in Benghazi terrorism.
“We’re still doing an investigation,” he said. “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by the extremists to see if they could directly harm U.S. interests.”
But it was his elaboration of his usual lament about failing to change the tone of Washington that immediately drew a sharp response from Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside,” Obama said, appearing to admit his inability to fully deliver on one of the driving themes of his 2008 campaign. “You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected. And that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done.”
Speaking in Sarasota Thursday, Romney — who made his own Univision forum appearance Wednesday — said this amounted to Obama throwing in “the white flag of surrender.”
“I can change Washington,” Romney promised. “I will change Washington. I will get the job done from the inside.”
However, much of the time in front of the Spanish-language audience here was spent on Obama’s failure to get comprehensive immigration reform — something that Obama attributed to focusing instead on the economy and blaming Republicans in Congress.
But to host Jorge Ramos, that answer was not good enough.
“You promised that, and a promise is a promise,” Ramos told Obama. “And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”
Obama responded with an explanation for the Spanish-language audience about the separation of powers in the federal government.
“There’s the thinking that the president is somebody who is all-powerful and can get everything done,” Obama responded. “In our branch, in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature, I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done. So I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn’t get it done, but I did not make a promise that we would get everything done, 100 percent when I was elected as president.”
Later in the hourlong forum, Obama was asked what has been his biggest failure as president. He did not hesitate.
“As you remind me, my biggest failure is that we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done,” he said. “So we’re going to be continuing to work on that. But it’s not for lack of trying or desire.”
Obama also blamed Congress when reminded that he has presided over more deportations than any president in history.
“As the head of the executive branch, there’s a limit to what I can do,” he said. “Part of the reasons that deportations went up was Congress put a whole lot of money into it and when you have a lot of resources and a lot more agents involved, then there are going to be higher numbers.”
And asked if his action to stop deporting some people in the country illegally — announced in June, as the campaign was heating up — was done purely for political purposes, Obama pivoted to focus the conversation on the Republicans’ immigration proposals.
“I think if you take a look at the polls, I was winning the Latino vote before we took that action,” Obama said. “Partly because the other side had completely abandoned their commitment to things like comprehensive immigration reform.”
While Obama was facing repeated tough questions on immigration and deportation policy, he was not questioned thoroughly on his stewardship of the economy, consistently the trickiest issue he faces.
That didn’t stop Obama from steering questions back that direction. His initial response to the immigration question was an explanation that upon taking office in 2009 his “first priority was making sure that we prevented us from going into a great depression.”
Obama also used the interview to further his critique of GOP rival Mitt Romney’s videotaped comments that 47 percent of the nation will support Obama only because they depend on government benefits, though he sidestepped directly answering a question about whether this is what Romney actually believes.
“When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government,” Obama said, “my thinking is maybe you haven’t gotten around a lot.”
He then added a subtle jab at the wealthy – like Romney – avoiding paying a similar percentage of their income in taxes as the middle class.
“Are there people who abuse the system? Yes. Both at the bottom and at the top. Because there are a whole bunch of millionaires who aren’t paying taxes at all either.”
Jonathan Martin contributed to this report from Sarasota.