NEW YORK — Raking in campaign cash, President Barack Obama blitzed through Manhattan Thursday night, offering donors at ritzy fundraisers a vigorous defense of his foreign policy record, saying his administration's successes abroad would weaken one line of Republican attack in the presidential election.
"The other side traditionally seems to feel that the Democrats are somehow weak on defense. They're having a little trouble making that argument this year," Obama told supporters at a $35,800-a-person dinner.
From ending the war in Iraq to ordering the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the president said his approach to foreign policy was based on the belief that "there's no contradiction between being tough and strong and protecting the American people, but also abiding by those values that make America great."
Despite Obama's assertions, Republican presidential candidates have hardly backed away from criticizing his foreign policy record. GOP front-runner Mitt Romney has said Obama's foreign policy is based on saying "pretty please" to overseas foes. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich repeatedly criticized Obama for apologizing to Afghan authorities for burned Qurans on a military base, saying the apology was "astonishing" and undeserved.
At a separate fundraiser earlier Thursday – a $5,000-a-person reception – Obama defended his commitment to Israel's security, particularly amid the turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, where some long-time leaders having been pushed from power over the past year.
The sweeping changes, he said, make foreign policy in the region more complex. "It used to be easier to deal with one person who was an autocrat when it came to knowing who you could strike a deal with," Obama said.
With the region's leadership structure changing, Obama said the U.S. would have to take into account the "politics and the attitudes of people in the region," some of which he acknowledged were anti-Israel.
Further underscoring tensions in the Middle East, a supporter at yet another fundraiser urged the president to avoid a war with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
"Nobody has announced a war," Obama cautioned. "You're jumping the gun a little bit."
The president also sought to cast the Republican Party as having moved to the far right and compared it with his 2008 general election opponent, Sen. John McCain. The senator from Arizona, Obama said, "could never get a nomination in the Republican Party this time around, would be considered too liberal."
Before raising money in New York, Obama focused his political sights on snowy New Hampshire, where he demanded that Congress eliminate oil and gas company subsidies that he called an outrageous government giveaway. Though politically a long shot, the White House believes the idea resonates at a time of high gasoline prices.
"Let's put every single member of Congress on record: You can stand with oil companies or you can stand up for the American people," Obama said, reiterating an appeal he made last year as gas prices were rising.
The president also said Republican charges that his policies are driving up gas prices won't pass "a political bull-detector" test and pointed to a chart that showed decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
His remarks came as retail gasoline prices rose Thursday to a national average of $3.74 per gallon.
Obama has repeatedly called for an end to about $4 billion in annual tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas companies, government support that Obama has said is unwarranted at a time of burgeoning profits and rising domestic production.
"It's outrageous. It's inexcusable. I'm asking Congress: Eliminate this oil industry giveaway right away," he told a crowd at Nashua Community College after touring the school's automotive lab.
Republican presidential contenders and GOP leaders in Congress denounced Obama's appeal for ending subsidies and called on Obama to take further steps to expand oil production in the United States.
Obama's move was his latest and most direct appeal to Congress to act on the tax breaks, a move that is certain to get stiff Republican opposition and that failed even when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.
But an administration official said the White House expects Congress to soon take up a measure ending some subsidies. The official requested anonymity to avoid speaking publicly without authorization.
Criticized by Republicans for taking too much credit for increasing oil production at home, Obama made sure to credit both his administration and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, without mentioning Bush by name. The move seemed intended on stripping away that line of criticism from his opposition.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama has offered nothing to show that "raising taxes on American energy production will lower gas prices and create jobs." White House spokesman Jay Carney shot back that oil companies are making big profits and "it doesn't make sense for the taxpayer to cushion their already very robust bottom line."
Last year, a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service that was getting renewed attention on Thursday concluded that Obama's oil and gas proposals "may have the effect of decreasing exploration, development and production, while increasing prices and increasing the nation's foreign oil dependence."
Obama also went further than he has in the past in describing how the global standoff with Iran is driving up the cost of gasoline.
"The biggest thing that's causing the price of oil to rise right now is instability in the Middle East – this time it's Iran," Obama said. "A lot of folks are nervous about what might happen there, so they are anticipating there might be a big disruption in terms of flow."
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Woodstock, Ga., and Kasie Hunt in Fargo, N.D., contributed to this report.