President Barack Obama grilled on failed immigration promise, consulate attacks

Published Sept. 20, 2012

CORAL GABLES — President Barack Obama is handily winning the Hispanic vote, but his hour-long Gran Encuentro on Spanish-language network giant Univision was anything but easy.

The president was repeatedly peppered on Thursday with questions about why he broke his promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And he was probed about the "Fast and Furious" gun operation program that blew up on his administration.

Obama later flew to Tampa, where he attended a $20,000-a-plate dinner fundraiser at the Palma Ceia home of Don Miggs and Lisa DeBartolo.

Guests, including former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, gathered at tables and on white sofas, under a white tent in the backyard, according to a pool report from the event.

Celebrity chef Tyler Florernce prepared dinner, and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder provided entertainment. At one point, Vedder joked that his Hawaiian ukulele had it's own "little birth certificate."

Earlier, during Obama's Univision interview, co-host Maria Elena Salinas asked a pointed question about anti-American protests in the Muslim world and if the administration should have been better prepared.

Obama never really answered directly, and instead said that the protestors 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 so-called "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.

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."

At another point in the interview, Obama 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 health care got done."

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 began.

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 pressed. "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.

Republicans pounced.

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 re-election campaigns for months: One is in English and one in Spanish.

Obama was also on the defensive 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 George W. 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.

Following the interview Obama made an unscheduled stop at OMG! Burgers in South Miami with three college students, two from the University of Miami and one from Barry University.

He still arrived in Tampa earlier than expected, where preparations for the posh fundraiser — which was expected to raise $1.7 million — were well underway.

Florence, a chef featured on the Food Network, spent Wednesday shopping for ingredients at Mazzaro's Italian Market.

And Vedder, whose Seattle rock band has sold an estimated 60 million albums worldwide, was spotted lunching at Datz in Tampa.

At Thursday's fundraiser, Obama made sure to point out Crist, the Republican-turned-independent former governor who endorsed Obama's campaign last month.

"I'm allowed to hug him as much as I want," Obama said, referencing a 2009 man-hug between the president and the then-Republican.

Obama then dived into a standard fundraising speech, according to a poll report, saying Romney's plan is to give tax breaks "to folks like you."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report, which included information from POLITICO.