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Obama says he couldn’t fix immigration without Congress

Univision news anchor Maria Elena Salinas with President Obama at a town hall at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Obama discussed Latino-related issues including his difficulty in pushing through immigration reform.
(Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — President Obama defended his handling of the immigration issue Thursday at a town hall focused on Latino issues, but handed Mitt Romney fuel for a new line of attack when he acknowledged that one of his biggest failures was his inability “to change the tone in Washington.”

After a warm welcome from an audience of college students, Obama was called out by a popular Univision newscaster for talking big about immigration reform in the last campaign but failing to pass it.

Obama said he tried to build support for immigration reform early in his term and then ran into roadblocks when Republicans in Congress declined to work with him on it.

On a stage at the University of Miami, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos told Obama it sounded like a promise in 2008 and that, “with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

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Obama said that the president is not “all-powerful,” and that he can’t act unilaterally without Congress. He said he had learned from his time in office.

“Most important is you can’t change Washington from inside, only from the outside,” Obama said at the forum, adding that the American people prompted Washington to act. “That’s how some of our biggest accomplishments like healthcare got done — mobilizing the American people.”

Across the state in Sarasota, the Republican nominee said Obama’s admission was another reason voters needed to reject him in November.

“We face a Washington that’s broken, that can’t get the job done. The president today threw in the white flag of surrender again,” Romney told 4,600 supporters at a sweltering outdoor rally. “He said he can’t change Washington from inside, he can only change it from outside. Well, we’re going to give him that chance in November. He’s going outside!”

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Romney focused on the first part of the president’s statement, deemed it “amazing,” and pledged that if he is elected president, he will accomplish more by working with both parties.

“I can change Washington; I will change Washington. We’ll get the job done from the inside. Republicans and Democrats will come together. He can’t do it,” Romney said. “His slogan was, ‘Yes we can’; his slogan now is, ‘No I can’t.’ This is time for a new president. He went from the president of change to the president who can’t get change.”

The Huffington Post, meanwhile, noted that Romney took the opposite tack in 2007 while campaigning against John McCain, the longtime Republican senator from Arizona, saying: “I don’t think you change Washington from the inside. I think you change it from the outside.”

Romney’s decision to hold a public event in Sarasota points to its importance in the upcoming election. The area is traditionally Republican, but is competitive. In 2008, McCain won the county by a little over 200 votes, though he lost the state. If Romney were able to run up his numbers here, that would improve his prospects of winning Florida.

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At the Univision forum, where Romney spoke Wednesday, Obama was asked about Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and how he handled the gun-tracking operation that went awry on the Southwestern border.

The Justice Department inspector general’s report excoriating the operation was “not a whitewash in any way,” Obama said. “I mean, it was tough on the Justice Department, and it indicated that potentially, more supervision was needed. People should have known in some cases even if they didn’t actually know.”

“When Eric Holder found out about it, he discontinued it,” he said, a day after the report came out clearing Holder.

And then there was the back-and-forth over the comprehensive immigration reform Obama said he would fight for.

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He said his inability to pass it was not for “lack of trying or desire.”

“What I confess I did not expect — and so I’m happy to take responsibility for being naive here — is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform — my opponent in 2008, who had been a champion of it and who attended these meetings — suddenly would walk away. That’s what I did not anticipate,” Obama said.

Obama went on to promote his support for the Dream Act, which would provide an avenue for some young illegal immigrants to remain in the country legally, and to point out Romney’s positions on immigration.

He also added this new line to his analysis of his opponent’s assertion that 47% of Americans depend on government and would never support Romney.

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“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,” Obama said.

christi.parsons@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Parsons reported from Coral Gables, Mehta from Sarasota.

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