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.”
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