President Obama, holding a rare press conference on a politically charged day, hit hard on Tuesday at his Republican critics on both economic and foreign policy, accusing them of thwarting a robust economic recovery and "beating the drums of war" loosely and irresponsibly against Iran and Syria. Using some of the toughest language of his presidency, he drew a sharp contrast between his responsibilities as commander in chief and rhetoric from candidates.
Lamenting “what is said on the campaign trail,” he said that the Republican candidates “do not have a lot of responsibilities. They are not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war.”
Pointedly, he chided them for their campaign rhetoric, saying, “This is not a game; there’s nothing casual about it.” He said he has to factor into his decision-making the impact on members of the military who have to do the fighting, as well as “the impact it has on our economy.”
He added, “When I see the folks with a lot of big talk and you ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we have been doing over the last three years. It indicates to me that it is more about politics than trying to solve a difficult problem.”
Although Obama did not specifically cite any Republicans by name, his comments came shortly after both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum laced into the president in speeches before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Romney scoffed at any talk of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear-weapons plans by asserting, “Hope is not a foreign policy." Santorum accused Obama of “turning his back on the people of Israel.”
Obama defended his approach to the Middle East, saying, “The one thing that we have not done is we have not launched a war. If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so and explain to the American people why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.”
In his first solo White House press conference in 152 days, the president offered a stout defense of his policy toward both Iran and Syria. He boasted that Iran “is feeling the bite” of what he called “crippling sanctions.” He pledged to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
“My policy is not containment, my policy is to prevent them getting a nuclear weapon. It would trigger an arms race and it could fall into the hands of terrorists,” he said.
But Obama said it is very premature to be talking of war while diplomats are making progress. “At this stage, it's my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said, contending that view is shared by the intelligence community and Israel. “We will continue to apply pressure, even as we give Iran a door to walk through to rejoin the national community.”
Predicting that the international sanctions are starting to work and will be felt even more in coming days, Obama vigorously challenged those who say imminent action is needed. “This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months, is not borne out by the facts,” he said, insisting that “the sanctions will be tougher in the coming months, because they are now starting to effect the oil industry, the central bank.... It's deeply in everyone's interests -- the United States, Israel, and the world's -- to see if it can be resolved in a peaceful fashion.”
Obama described the situation in Syria as “heartbreaking and outrageous.” He said the international community has mobilized against the Assad regime. “It's not a question of when Assad leaves or if he leaves. It's a question of when. He has lost the people. And the actions that he has now taken against his own people is inexcusable and the world community has said so in a more or less unified voice.”
But he would not endorse a U.S.-led military operation.
“For us to take military action, unilaterally as some have suggested or to think that somehow there's a simple solution, I think is a mistake,” he said.
Returning to the day’s theme, Obama said military action may be necessary but the decision should not be made lightly. “Sometimes it’s necessary, but we do not do it casually.” He added, “We do not play politics with it. When we have in the past, when we have not thought it through, and it gets wrapped up in politics, we make mistakes. And typically, it's not the folks who were popping off who pay the price. It's these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.”
Holding the press conference on Super Tuesday, when 10 states are voting to pick a Republican to oppose him, the president also warned against the impact of politics on economic policy.
Despite signs of recovery, he said, “Our job in Washington isn’t to sit back and no nothing.” Even with a presidential campaign underway, he said, “We can’t just stop there and wait for the next election to come around.”
And he drew laughter when he was asked about high gas prices. “Do you think that the president of the United States going into a reelection wants the prices on gas to go higher? Is there anybody here that thinks that makes a lot of sense?”
Obama insisted that he wants the price at the pump to come down because high fuel prices hurt families. “I meet people every day that have to drive a long way to get to work” and the high prices are causing them pain. But he suggested ther are limits to what he can do to achieve the goal. “What I have said also about gas prices is that there's no silver bullet and the only way we will solve the problem over the medium and long term is with an all of the above strategy.” He said he supports increased production and increased conservation.
The president resisted getting dragged into either the Republican primary battles or the controversy ensnaring conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh after he called female law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her statements on insurance coverage for contraception. Asked what he would like to say to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, Obama drew laughter when he responded, “Good luck tonight.” After the laughter, he added, “Really.”
Asked if Limbaugh’s apology was sufficient and what he thought of Limbaugh’s sponsors pulling their ads from the show, he responded, “I'm not going to comment on what sponsors decide to do. I'm not going to comment on either the economics or the politics of it. I don't know what is in Rush Limbaugh's heart, so I'm not going to comment on the apology.”
But he said Limbaugh’s initial remarks “don't have any place in the public discourse.” He said he telephoned Fluke because he thought of his own two young daughters.
“One of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on," he said. "I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way. And I do not want them attacked or called horrible names because they are being good citizens.”
He did not embrace Democratic rhetoric that Republicans are waging a “war against women.” Women, he said, “are going to make up their own mind in this election about who is advancing the issues that they care most deeply about.”
He added, “There are millions of strong women around the country who are going to make their own opinions up around a whole range of issues. It will not just be focused on contraception or driven by one statement by one radio announcer. It will be driven by their view of what is most likely going to allow them to help support their families, make their mortgage payments, who has a plan to ensure that middle-class families are secure over the long term.”
Asked about immigration, he called the current system “broken” and gave credit to his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, for trying to push a comprehensive reform of the system working with both parties.
“That was good advice then, and it would be good advice now,” he said. “And my hope is that after this election, the Latino community will have sent a strong message that they want a bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform that involves tough border security.”
But he said it should not be looked at as a Latino issue. “We can be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants and it's not just a Hispanic issue, this is an issue for everyone. This is an American issue that we need to fix.” He acknowledged he has failed to fix it in his first term. “We did not get it done. And the reason we have not gotten it done is because what used to be a bipartisan agreement -- that we should fix this -- has ended up being a problem.”