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Los Angeles - President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney tangled over their varying approaches to foreign policy in dueling "60 Minutes" interviews that aired Sunday, with the president brushing off Romney's charge that he has been weak on national defense and charging that if Romney "is suggesting that we should start another war - he should say so."
The debate on the campaign trail is likely to turn to foreign policy once again this week with Obama slated to address the United Nations on Tuesday in New York at the organization's annual gathering.
In an interview with the CBS program taped on Sept. 12, he defended his efforts to bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a conclusion and touted his order to kill Osama bin Laden. And he pushed back against recent pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pinpoint what conditions he would require before launching a military attack on Iran to prevent that country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel 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. At the same time, he said he feels 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."
Obama also tried to deflect criticism from Romney for his decision not to meet with Netanyahu this week at the U.N. The White House said the meeting was impossible because of scheduling conflicts. As he has on the trail, Romney said in the "60 Minutes" interview that the decision "sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what's necessary."
The two men were pressed on their chief vulnerabilities in 2012. In the face of criticism from Romney, who has portrayed him as a hapless commander-in-chief who is ill-equipped to tackle the nation's economic challenges, Obama pointed to 30 months of job growth and his tax cuts for middle-income Americans. His opponent's agenda, he said, would amount to going "backwards to the very policies that got us into this mess."
"The problem that Governor Romney has is that he seems to only have one note: tax cuts for the wealthy and rolling back regulations as a recipe for success," Obama said. "Well, we tried that vigorously between 2001 and 2008. And it didn't work out so well."
Romney's campaign has been foundering since the end of the two party conventions - he has slipped behind Obama in a number of key swing-state polls, and he was criticized by even some leading Republicans for criticizing the president's handling of an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. And the Republican presidential nominee has spent the last week trying to explain his secretly taped comments at a spring fundraiser that his job "is not to worry about" the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax.
CBS anchor Scott Pelley noted that a number of donors and Republican voters were watching to see how he would turn his campaign around.
"It doesn't need a turnaround," replied the former Massachusetts governor, who insisted that he would win in November. "We've got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president."
Romney was pressed by Pelley about whether his shifts on key issues like abortion should lead voters to question his fidelity to his beliefs. Romney charged in response that Obama has changed positions on a number of issues, such as the closure of the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, his decision to allow military tribunals to continue there, and his shift to support same-sex marriage.
"The principles I have are the principles I've had from the beginning of my political life," Romney said when pressed about his own evolution by Pelley. "But have I learned? Have I found that some things I thought would be effective turned out not to be effective? Absolutely. If you don't learn from experience, you don't learn from your mistakes - why you know, you ought to be fired."
Romney also touted his tax plan to reduce current income tax rates by 20 percent, but he said Americans should not expect "a huge reduction in the taxes they owe," because he said his plan would also limit deductions and exemptions. Though Democrats have skewered his plan as favoring the rich, Romney said he would maintain the progressivity of the tax code - "there should be no tax reduction for high-income people."
His aim, he said, is a tax reduction for middle-class families by cutting taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains. But the Republican candidate again refused to name the specific tax deductions and exemptions he would phase out, insisting that he and his running mate Paul Ryan would work out those details with Congress.