WASHINGTON President Barack Obama hammered Republicans over taxes and women's rights on Monday in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room that was meant to knock his rivals on what was already a bad news day for them.
The Democratic president has been criticized by reporters and Republican political operatives for not holding a news conference in roughly two months while his opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has taken questions from his traveling press corps more regularly.
Obama's unannounced appearance addressed that critique and, more strategically, gave him a chance to pile on the opposing party while it scrambled to recover from news reports about one of its lawmakers skinny-dipping in Israel's Sea of Galilee and a congressman's widely condemned comments about rape.
Obama zeroed in on those remarks by U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri, calling them offensive and saying politicians should not be making healthcare decisions for women.
"Rape is rape and the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn't make sense to the American people and certainly doesn't make sense to me," Obama said.
Akin, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is in a hotly contested race with Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in the November 6 election, said in an interview Sunday that women have biological defenses to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." He later said he misspoke.
Obama is polling better than Romney among women, and Akin's comments could feed into the perception - trumpeted by the Obama campaign - that a Republican in the White House would hurt women's rights.
During the news conference, Obama also distanced himself from an ad by Priorities USA Action, a Democratic "Super PAC," which ties Romney to the death of a woman whose steelworker husband lost his job after Romney's company, Bain Capital, closed the plant where he worked.
"I don't think that Governor Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad," Obama said, noting that he had not approved the commercial.
"Now in contrast, you've got Governor Romney creating as a centerpiece of his campaign this notion that we're taking the work requirement out of welfare," Obama said, referring to claims by the Romney campaign that Obama was rolling back welfare reform. The claims have been debunked by fact-checkers.
Romney's team has accused Obama of negative, divisive campaigning, a charge the president rejected.
"We point out sharp differences between the candidates, but we don't go out of bounds," Obama said. "Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon," he added in response to a question.
In fact, Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, in July said that if Romney misrepresented his position at Bain to the Securities and Exchange Commission, that could be felony. Her comments came after the Boston Globe reported Romney had remained registered as a top official at Bain three years after he said he left the firm to run the Salt Lake City Olympics.
"The president deliberately mislead voters by falsely stating that no one in his campaign had accused Mitt Romney of committing a crime," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.
The Obama campaign has kept up pressure on Romney over his tenure at Bain Capital and over his decision not to release several years of tax returns as previous presidential candidates, including his own father, have traditionally done.
Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to run for U.S. president, has released his 2010 returns and promised to release his full 2011 returns but nothing more.
Obama said voters expected candidates to be an "open book" about their finances when running for the White House.
"Particularly when we're going to be having a huge debate about how we reform our tax code and how we pay for the government that we need, I think people want to know that everybody has been playing by the same rules, including people who are seeking the highest office in the land," Obama said.
"This is not an entitlement, being president of the United States. This is a privilege. And we've got to put ourselves before the American people to make our case."