After weeks of complaints that he was dodging the White House press corps, President Obama made an unannounced appearance in the White House briefing room today, where he held his first press conference in over two months. The president took questions for about 20 minutes, some campaign-related, some more policy-oriented — others a mixture of both.
Obama was asked first about Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin’s comment that “legitimate” rape doesn’t usually cause pregnancy. Akin, a strong pro-life advocate, later said that he “misspoke.”
“Rape is rape,” said Obama, adding that defining rape “doesn’t make sense to the American people and doesn’t make sense to me…What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, the majority of which are men, making decisions that affect health of women.”
The president later said that he did not think his GOP opponents, Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, shared Akin’s views. In fact, Romney had released a statement earlier in the day calling Akin’s comments “insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong.”
Obama was then asked about his campaign’s efforts to pressure Romney into releasing more than one or two years worth of tax returns.
“I’m not asking him to disclose every detail of his medical records,” the president said. “This isn’t sort of overly personal here, guys, this is pretty standard stuff. I don’t think we’re being mean by asking [Romney] to do what every other presidential candidate’s done, right? It’s what the American people expect.”
Though Romney said last week that he has paid at least a 13 percent tax rate over the last decade, Obama suggested that the former Massachusetts Governor should follow the model set by his own father, George, who released a dozen years of tax returns when he, himself, ran for president in the 1960′s. Without explicitly accusing Romney of hiding something in his returns, Obama questioned whether revealing a single year of tax forms would be enough to satisfy an electorate that has become accustomed to seeing candidates turn over several years worth of such documentation. Obama also took a swipe at Romney over his prior Swiss bank account, which Obama said makes it hard for average middle-class Americans to relate to Romney.
Obama then responded to a question about an ad produced by his Super PAC suggesting that Romney could have helped prevent the death of a cancer-stricken woman whose husband lost his health insurance when was laid off by a steel company owned by Romney’s private equity firm Bain Capital. “I don’t think Governor Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad,” Obama said, noting that he did not personally approve the Priorities USA ad, which aired only once.
He then decried a Romney ad that accused his administration of gutting the work requirement within welfare. Obama rejected the assertion, and argued that the waivers he offered last month to states are aimed at reducing welfare rolls in the long-run.
“We would potentially give states more flexibility to put more people back to work, not to take them off the work requirement under welfare,” Obama said. “Everybody who’s looked at this says what Governor Romney is saying is absolutely wrong. Not only are his Super PAC’s running millions of dollars worth of ads making this claim, Governor Romney, himself, is approving this and saying it on the stump.”
Obama had less to say about a pair of foreign policy issues that came up. When asked about how his administration is dealing with a recent slew of violent attacks by Afghans against U.S. and NATO forces, Obama said he is “deeply concerned” by the so-called “green on blue” incidents.
The president said that he had spoken about the attacks with Gen. John Allen, the U.S.’s top Commander in Afghanistan, who informed him that coalition forces have been intensifying their vetting process of Afghans who apply to serve their country, and said that a phone call to Afghan President Hamid Karzai would be forthcoming. He also mentioned a new ‘Guardian Angels’ program created to protect on-duty U.S. forces from being ambushed by either turncoat Afghan troops or civilians who dress up in military gear. ”Obviously,” Obama added, “we’re gonna have to do more.”
And on the ongoing crisis in Syria, the president reiterated his calls for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down, and noted that his administration has supplied the Syrian people with $82 million in non-lethal aid. Obama warned, however, that the use of chemical and biological weapons by Assad would likely prompt Washington to take military action against the regime there.
The decision by the White House to make Obama available for questions today was likely influenced by a growing chorus of outrage displayed by members of the Washington media, upset that Obama had not called on them in weeks. In fact, the last question Obama took at an official press conference came on June 19 at the end of the G20 summit in Mexico. There, he fielded just six questions. Before that, he made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room on June 8, during which he famously stated that the nation’s private sector was “doing fine.”
The last time Obama held a full-length news conference was all the way back on March 6.
During that time, however, Obama has conducted a large number of one-on-one interviews, either with local media outlets in key swing states, or national publications whose readers or viewers generally pay less attention to politics on a daily basis. The White House and the Obama campaign have defended those interviews, claiming they represent important and significant opportunities for the president to familiarize himself with voters in many different areas.