ORLANDO — A couple of hours before he speaks in Tampa, President Barack Obama acknowledged to a group of Hispanic leaders on Friday the struggling economy but said he was best equipped to carry the country forward and defended his action blocking deportations of young illegal immigrants.
"I refused to keep looking young people in the eye, deserving young people in the eye, and tell them 'Tough luck, the politics is too hard,' " Obama said.
He said his new policy is not "amnesty" but a short-term measure that lifts "the shadow of deportation," and he called on lawmakers to pass the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship: "To those in Congress saying Congress should be the ones to fix this, absolutely."
Obama, who voted for the Dream Act while in the Senate, blamed Republicans for walking away from comprehensive reform. "The bill hasn't changed. The need hasn't changed. The only that has changed is politics."
(Earlier in the day U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio criticized both parties for politicizing the issue and cast Obama's action as an election ploy.)
Obama ripped Republican rival Mitt Romney for saying he would veto the Dream Act, though Romney has said he wants to provide citizenship to people who serve in the military and on Thursday called for a long-term solution as well.
Obama spoke before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, where Romney had appeared before and made his own economic appeal — noting Hispanics have been hurt worse than the general population, with an 11 percent unemployment rate vs. 8.2 percent.
"Of course the economy isn't where it needs to be. Of course there's still too many who struggle," Obama said. "We've got so much more work to do. But the question is, how do we make the economy grow faster? How do we create more jobs? The question is what vision are we going to stand up for?"
Obama said the country was being held back by a "stalemate" in Congress and criticized Romney and Republicans for seeking more tax cuts and ignoring the wealthy. "We don't need any more top-down economics."
Wildly received by the heavily Democratic audience of about 1,000, Obama spoke a few lines in Spanish and spoke of the hard work that defines the nation. "Nobody personifies these American values, these American traits better than the Latino community."
On Thursday, Romney outlined his immigration proposal that called for permanent residency for highly skilled college graduates and members of the military and protections for and a "high-tech" fence at the border. Romney's speech reflected a pivot to the middle — "common ground," as he put it — after his hard-line positions in the Republican primary.
Romney reacted vaguely to Obama's deportation announcement. "Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's (order)," Romney said. "The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure. As president, I won't settle for stop-gap measures."
Neither Romney nor Obama outlined how to address the more than 11 million people living illegally in the U.S.