President Barack Obama is handily winning the Hispanic vote, but his hourlong Gran Encuentro on the Spanish-language network Univision was anything but easy.
The president was repeatedly peppered Thursday with questions regarding his broken promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform. He was also put on the spot about U.S. preparedness overseas and his administration’s role in the failed and controversial “Fast and Furious” gun operation.
Under pressure, Obama at one point sounded as if he scuttled his hope-and-change campaign of Washington reform that he ran on four years ago.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside,” Obama said. “You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how big accomplishments like healthcare got done.”
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Co-host Maria Elena Salinas began the interview with a pointed question about anti-American protests in the Muslim world, including the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week that resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Salinas asked if the administration should have been better prepared.
Obama never really answered directly, and instead said that the protesters don’t represent all Muslims. He also noted the number of top-level al-Qaida members killed in Pakistan, and the terrorists being hunted elsewhere. But, Obama suggested, the “Arab spring” will have growing pains that the U.S. will monitor.
“We cannot replace the tyranny of a dictator with the tyranny of a mob,” Obama said amid a long response that didn’t say much about the preparedness of the consulate or the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that was stormed on Sept. 11.
Salinas then pressed Obama on whether the incident was a terrorist attack perpetuated by a country or a terrorist group.
“We’re still doing an investigation, and there will be different circumstances in different countries,” Obama said. “And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information.”
Earlier, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney commented on that very issue, saying for the first time that it was “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”
Previously, the administration had suggested the Benghazi attacks were more spontaneous and were tied to a controversial YouTube video that mocked the Prophet Mohammed, angering Muslims worldwide.
The fact that Obama on Thursday and Republican Mitt Romney on Wednesday sat with Doral-based Univision at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus underscores the importance of Hispanic voters, who comprise about 14 percent of Florida voters.
Polls show Obama is winning the Hispanic vote by double digits in Florida, where he clings to an overall inside-the-error margin lead over Romney.
The questions the candidates faced about the economy, foreign policy, education and drugs also showed that Hispanic voters are interested in the same issues as the rest of the electorate.
Still, immigration is a top concern — especially at Univision, and especially for Salinas’ co-host, Jorge Ramos. He has advocated for the DREAM Act, which gives a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and are college bound or serve in the military.
Ramos grilled Obama over his failure to live up to what he called “the Obama promise” — the 2008 interview with Ramos where Obama said he would tackle comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office.
“When we talked about immigration reform the first year, that’s before the economy was on the verge of collapse,” Obama said.
The president said he invited Republican members of Congress to the White House to discuss immigration, but none of them would partner with Democrats.
“What we could not get was a single Republican, including the 20 who had previously voted for immigration reform, to step up and say, ‘We will work with you to make this happen.’ ”
Obama also pointed out that he has not wavered in his support for immigration reform or the DREAM Act — which Romney, he noted, would veto.
Ramos wasn’t moved. He stopped speaking Spanish and broke into English because, he said, the question was too important.
“You promised that,” he said. “A promise is a promise, and with all due respect … you didn’t keep that promise.”
Later, when asked what his greatest failure was, Obama smiled and noted “Well, Jorge as you remind me, my biggest failure has been comprehensive immigration reform.”
The audience laughed.
They noted that, in different interviews, Obama has given different answers to the question. Obama once said his biggest failure was not clearly communicating his positions as president. Another time he said he regretted being unable to change Washington.
Obama’s differing answers showed the challenges of running for office. For months, the president has been running two reelection campaigns: One is in English, la otra es en Español.
In the home stretch of the election, Romney has recently tried to match Obama in Spanish-language outreach. Romney held a Miami rally Wednesday night with a largely Cuban-American crowd, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, comes to the heart of the exile community on Saturday: the Versailles restaurant.
Since Aug. 1, Romney has spent about $1.3 million on Spanish-language TV, while Obama has spent about $1 million. Before that, Obama and his allies spent more than $6.6 million while Romney and his side spent less than $1 million on Spanish-language ads.
Romney’s strategy: peel just enough Hispanic voters away because Obama’s lead there might not be enough to make up for his biggest electoral deficit among non-Hispanic white voters.
Because Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican overall, account for more than a third of the Hispanic electorate in Florida, Obama’s lead among Hispanics is lower here when compared to other battleground states like Nevada or Colorado. Cuban-Americans account for about 70 percent of the Republicans in Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county.
When he appeared on Univision Wednesday, Romney brought along a vocal group of Cuban-American supporters who cheered and clapped loudly throughout his 35-minute interview.
Obama, who granted Univision an entire hour, had supporters who appeared more subdued. A Univision reporter said the crowd was asked to be quieter than the day before with Romney.
During that interview, Univision’s hosts asked Romney to explain his recently released hidden-video comments in which he suggested that 47 percent of taxpayers who pay no federal income taxes are moochers.
Romney said he wasn’t being divisive and that he’s running a campaign “about the 100 percent.”
On Thursday, Salinas asked Obama: Which is the real Romney?
“It’s better directed to Mr. Romney,” Obama said. “When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims — that somehow they want to be dependent on government — my thought is maybe you haven’t gotten around a lot.”
Obama said he doubts there are lots of people who “loaf around and gather government checks.”
“Are there people who abuse the system? Yes,” Obama said. “Both at the bottom and at the top because there are a whole bunch of millionaires who aren’t paying taxes, either.”
The crowd applauded.
They weren’t cheering, however, when Ramos brought up the so-called “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation in which federal agents allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican gangsters in order to trace the weapons.
The program didn’t work. And a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed, his death linked to the failed operation.
Obama noted that Fast and Furious began under President Bush. He said Attorney General Eric Holder shut it down when he learned of it.
“What I don’t like to see is these kinds of issues become political circuses,” Obama said, suggesting House Republicans tried to score political points with an investigation.
Obama also plugged Pell Grants for college students during his interview and, he noted, that under congressman Ryan’s budget proposals, Pell Grants would be gutted.
Obama didn’t dwell on his budget plans, however. They haven’t moved in Congress.
Toward the end of the interview, Salinas brought the issue back up as one of the incomplete promises of Obama’s first term.
“I haven’t gotten everything done that I want to get done,” he said. "That’s why I’m running for a second term.”