WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ripped his Republican presidential rivals Tuesday in his first election-year press conference, accusing them of politicizing worries over Iran's nuclear aspirations and "beating the drums of war."
Holding his first news conference since October — on the same day that Republicans held presidential primaries in 10 states — Obama rebuffed criticism of his Iran policy by casting himself as a cautious warrior and his challengers as looking to score political points by accusing him of not being tough enough on Tehran. He also addressed a number of domestic concerns.
"When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded of the decision that I have to make, in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said. "This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it."
His remarks came just hours after Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich accused Obama of being weak on Iran in speeches before an influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Santorum called for giving Iran a "clear ultimatum" to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons, and Romney said he'd end the "current policy of procrastination."
Without naming his rivals, Obama challenged them, saying he's heard "a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk," but that when it comes down to action, "it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years."
"It indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem," Obama said, adding, "If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why."
Hours earlier, speaking to AIPAC, Santorum called for doing "more than just talk."
"We need to say the time is now. You will stop your nuclear production now," he said. "If they do not tear down those facilities, we will tear down them ourselves. This is not bellicosity and war mongering; this is preventing the most radical regime in the world from having a weapon."
Obama addressed AIPAC on Sunday and said he opposes Iran securing a nuclear weapon and would not "hesitate to use force when necessary."
But Tuesday he defended his administration's emphasis first on sanctions and diplomacy, saying that when he took office, Iran was "on the move" and had made progress on its nuclear program.
Now, he said, Iran is politically isolated and is "feeling the bite" of "crippling sanctions" that are expected to tighten over the summer as they hit Iran's central bank and oil industry.
"At this stage, it is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically," he said, adding that "top Israeli intelligence officials" agreed with his assessment.
"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.
He said his administration would continue to press Iran "even as we provide a door for the Iranian regime to walk through."
As for candidates on the campaign trail, he said, "Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief."
Obama also used the press conference to tout an administration program to help struggling homeowners, including veterans, using language that appeared a poke at Romney, who in October said that the housing market should "run its course and hit the bottom."
Introducing his plan, Obama said he's "not one of those people who believe that we should just sit by and wait for the housing market to hit bottom."
"There are real things that we can do right now that would make a substantial difference in the lives of innocent, responsible homeowners," he said.
He also fielded other domestic concerns, dismissing with a laugh Republican charges that he wants higher gasoline prices so as to promote renewable energy and reduce drilling.
"Just from a political perspective, do you think the president of the United States going into re-election wants gas prices to go up higher?" he said, looking around the room. "Is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense?"
He said his administration continues to look at measures to bring down gasoline prices, including looking at bottlenecks in refineries around the country. He said he's also asked Attorney General Eric Holder to reconstitute a task force to look at the role of speculation in the oil market.
McClatchy reported last week that the task force has met only four or five times since its creation last April. It's composed of regulators from agencies with overlapping responsibilities who discuss what their agencies are doing but is not a separate investigative unit working a focused agenda.
Obama invoked his daughters, Sasha and Malia, when he was asked whether he believed Rush Limbaugh's apology over the weekend to Sandra Fluke, the law student at the center of the contraception controversy whom Obama called last week. Limbaugh called her a "slut" and a "prostitute" on his radio show.
"I don't know what's in Rush Limbaugh's heart, so I'm not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology," Obama said. "What I can comment on is the fact that all decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don't have any place in the public discourse."
He said he thought about his young daughters when he called Fluke because "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. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way. And I don't want them attacked or called horrible names because they're being good citizens."
Though he didn't mention his Republican rivals by name, he acknowledged his timing as he took to the lectern at the White House.
"Now, I understand there are some political contests going on tonight," he said. "But I thought I'd start the day off by taking a few questions."
Asked what he'd say to Romney, whom a reporter noted has called Obama the "most feckless president since Carter," Obama laughed and replied, "Good luck tonight."
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