President Barack Obama called on Mitt Romney to clarify his position on Iran and Syria, raising the prospect that his Republican presidential challenger might want to start another war in the Middle East.
“If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so,” Obama said in an interview for CBS’s “60 Minutes” program broadcast yesterday as world leaders, including Obama, prepare to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York today.
“I’ve executed on my foreign policy,” Obama said, citing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
In a session taped separately for the show, Romney said his threshold for committing combat troops for any conflict was a “high hurdle.” The former Massachusetts governor criticized Obama for not scheduling a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, and said he would demand greater accountability from the new leadership in Egypt.
“The president’s decision not to meet with Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, when the prime minister is here for the United Nations session, I think is a mistake and sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends,” he said. “The exact opposite approach is what’s necessary.”
One of Romney’s main points of attack against Obama has been the U.S. relationship with Israel and the way the administration is dealing with the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear development program.
Obama, asked whether he is feeling pressured by Netanyahu in the middle of a campaign to draw a line in the sand against Iran, said his priority is “simply to do what’s right for the American people.”
“And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there,” Obama said. “Now I feel an obligation, not pressure but obligation, to make sure that we’re in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues, because it affects them deeply. They’re one of our closest allies in the region.”
As the two candidates prepare for their first debate on Oct. 3, the “60 Minutes” appearances mark their second virtual face-off in television interviews in a week. Last week, both appeared at separately taped town-hall meetings in Miami, broadcast by the Spanish-language network, Univision.
In the CBS interview, Obama defended his administration’s effort to lower the unemployment rate, while Romney answered questions about the effectiveness of his campaign and standing in polls in battleground states.
“I’m going to win this thing,” Romney said.
Obama polls 50 percent among likely voters in three swing states, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll conducted Sept. 16-18. The poll gave Obama identical 5-percentage-point leads, 50 percent to 45 percent, in Colorado and Wisconsin, and an 8-point advantage in Iowa, 50 percent to 42 percent.
Romney in the interview also expanded on his plans for overhauling government entitlement programs, saying Medicare and Social Security benefits for future retirees should be determined by an individual’s income, drawing a distinction with Obama.
“We’re going to have higher benefits for low-income people and lower benefits for high-income people,” Romney said. “We’re going to make it more means tested. By virtue of doing that, you’re able to save these programs on a permanent basis.”
In an election that both campaigns forecast will be close, Obama and Romney are seeking an edge with every voting bloc. Medicare and Social Security are key issues with older voters.
The president last week spoke via satellite to a gathering of AARP, the biggest U.S. advocacy group for senior citizens, in New Orleans. He pledged to keep both Social Security and Medicare solvent for current and future recipients and promised that over the next decade the average Medicare beneficiary will save $5,000 as a result of his health-care law.
Romney said programs designed to help the poor -- Medicaid, housing vouchers and food stamps -- are best administered by states instead of the federal government.
“I’d take the dollars for those programs, send them back to the states and say, ‘You craft your programs at your state level and the way you think best to deal with those that need that kind of help in your state’,” he said He also said he would cap the growth on those programs.
“People who rely on Social Security should see the same kind of growth rate they’ve had in the past,” he said, adding that there would be no changes for Americans in or near retirement. “But higher-income folks would receive a little less.”
In response to Romney’s charge that his administration has done little to stimulate economic growth, Obama expressed regret that his initial housing policies didn’t do more to help struggling homeowners, while adding that he wasn’t sorry about trying to regulate financial firms and the health-insurance industry.
“I don’t make any apologies for putting in place regulations to make sure banks don’t make reckless bets and then expect taxpayers to bail them out,” Obama said. “I don’t make any apologies for regulating insurance companies, so that they can’t drop a family’s coverage, just when somebody in their family needs it most.”
The health-care law championed by Obama is one of the campaign’s central points of debate. The 2010 overhaul scales back payments to Medicare Advantage plans, an alternative to traditional Medicare. The law also slows the growth of Medicare payments to hospitals and other health-care providers. Seniors’ benefits weren’t reduced in the legislation.