President Obama may have the overwhelming support of Latino voters in his race against Republican Mitt Romney, but that didn't get him a free pass during his appearance Thursday at Univision's presidential candidate forum.
Obama faced repeated tough questions from the hosts of the forum on the Spanish-language channel, and from some in the audience, for his failure to deliver on his promise as a candidate in 2008 to push comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in the White House.
Coming as it did just a day after the Justice Department's watchdog issued a critical report on the agency's now defunct "Fast and Furious" program, in which federal agents let guns from the U.S. reach Mexican criminals, Obama was forced to defend Attorney General Eric Holder.
But the town hall-style meeting at the University of Miami also gave the president another chance this week to score points at the Republican presidential nominee's expense in the wake of Romney's dismissive comments about nearly half of the electorate. Romney had his chance on Univision the day before.
The event also allowed Obama to talk up his move to defer deportations of young people who were brought to the U.S. as small children and are in the country illegally. That action has helped the president solidify his support with many Latino voters.
Co-host Jorge Ramos, who has kept after Obama since early in his presidency about the need for presidential leadership on immigration reform, wanted Obama to confess to breaking a vow he made during a May 2008 interview with him.
RAMOS: "At the beginning of your government, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise."
Obama answered that the campaign promise he made in May 2008 was overtaken by events, namely the economic meltdown and a possible depression.
OBAMA: "I think everybody here remembers where we were four years ago. We lost 800,000 jobs the month that I took office. Small businesses and big businesses couldn't get financing. People had seen their 401(k)s evaporate. People were losing homes left and right.
"And so we had to take a whole series of emergency actions to make sure that we put people back to work — cutting taxes for middle-class families and small businesses, so that they could stay open or pay the bills; making sure that states got assistance, so they didn't have to lay off teachers and firefighters and police officers; saving an auto industry that was on the brink of collapse. And so — so that took up a huge amount of time in the first year."
Obama added that he did try early to find common ground on comprehensive immigration reform with congressional Republicans. But he quickly learned, he said, that even those who had supported such legislation during the George W. Bush administration wouldn't agree to work with him.
He promised to make another run at reform if he's re-elected. Asked by someone over Facebook what would make matters any different assuming Republicans held onto the House, Obama said:
OBAMA: "So my hope is that after the election, when the number-one goal is no longer beating me but hopefully the number-one goal is solving the country's problems, if they have seen that people who care about this issue have turned out in strong numbers that they will rethink it, if not because it's the right thing to do, at least because it's in their political interest to do so."
Under Ramos' prodding, Obama admitted that immigration was his biggest failure.
This prompted co-host Maria Elena Salinas to circle back to Ramos' earlier effort to get Obama to admit that he had broken his promise on immigration.
SALINAS: (Through interpreter.) "Yes, as you said, that's your biggest failure. And Jorge asked you if you consider that you broke your promise. So I think that the answer is yes, with many excuses that you actually broke your promise."
Obama didn't agree or disagree, but said he was "running for a second term because we've still got more work to do." That line drew some of the longest applause of the session from an audience filled with Democrats.
Asked by Salinas to address suspicions that his executive action, just months before Election Day, to defer deportation proceedings against young undocumented immigrants was done to get the Hispanic vote, Obama said:
OBAMA: "Well, I — I think if you take a look at the polls, I was winning the Latino vote before we took that action, partly because the other side had completely abandoned their commitment to things like comprehensive immigration reform."
With the fallout still hanging in the air from Romney's comments at a May fundraiser, Ramos asked Obama if he thought the Republican candidate who made the "47 percent" comment — or the one who said Wednesday on Univision that his campaign is about the "100 percent" — is the "true Romney?"
OBAMA: "You know, I think your question, Jorge, about what's the real Mitt Romney is better directed at Mr. Romney. But I will say this: You know, when you — when you express an attitude that half the country consider itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven't gotten around a lot, because I travel around the country all the time, and — and the American people are the hardest-working people there are. And their problem is not — (applause) — their problem is not that they're not working hard enough or they don't want to work or they're being taxed too little or they just want to loaf around and — and gather government checks."
Obama also offered a variation of a line he used earlier in the week on the Late Show with David Letterman.
OBAMA: "I've been president now for almost four years. But the day I was elected, that night in Grant Park, where I spoke to the country, I said 47 percent of the people didn't vote for me, but I've heard your voices, and I'm going to work just as hard for you as I did for those who did vote for me. That's how you have to operate as a president. I — I truly believe that."
When the discussion turned to Fast and Furious, Ramos asked the president if Attorney General Holder shouldn't be fired even if he didn't know about the program. Guns from the program were found at the scene of a murdered U.S. Border Patrol agent in 2010.
OBAMA: "I will tell you that Eric Holder has my complete confidence because he has shown himself to be willing to hold accountable those who took these actions and is passionate about making sure that we're preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands."