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Obama links faith to policies at prayer breakfast


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Obama linked his faith to his policies at a speech Thursday, making a reference at one point that some saw as a subtle dig at Mitt Romney.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast here, Obama said that he is driven to public service in part by "the Biblical call to care for the least of these -- for the poor; for those at the margins of society."

The president’s remarks came a day after Romney said during an interview that he is "not concerned about the very poor," noting that there is already "a safety net" for that income bracket and that he was focused on the struggles of the middle class. Those comments sparked a firestorm among both liberal and conservative commentators.

Several reporters at today's White House briefing asked press secretary Jay Carney whether Obama's comments were an intentional dig at Romney.

Carney insisted that Obama’s use of scripture was an appropriate way to articulate his policy positions, considering the venue.

“I think if you can't discuss in a prayer breakfast one of the central tenets of your faith which is prevalent throughout the New Testament, I think you're really circumscribing yourself too much,” he said. “He was not trying to engage in campaigning; he was simply talking about faith and how it affects the decisions he makes.”

But this instance was not the first in which Carney had to push back on the president’s perceived motivation for using particular phrases in his speeches.

Wednesday, Obama seemed to make an indirect reference to a past Romney comment when, during an interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal, the former Massachusetts governor said the housing industry should be left to “hit the bottom” on its own.

“It is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom,” Obama said in a speech about mortgage finance relief.

When asked whether that comment was directed toward Romney, Carney would only say that he had no response “specifically to any comment like that by a candidate.”

During the prayer breakfast, the president also explained several times how his faith informed some of his policies, a departure from his previous two speeches at the annual event.

"When I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren't discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren't taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody," Obama said, making direct references to legislation passed under his watch on financial regulation and health care.

"But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God's command to 'love thy neighbor as thyself,'" he continued.

He also explained the biblical underpinnings of his support for more middle-class tax breaks, while placing a heavier tax obligation on the wealthiest Americans.

"I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it's hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone.

“But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that, ‘For unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’” he said.

Obama's previous prayer breakfast speeches, while not devoid of politics, have included much more oblique references.

In last year’s speech, he spoke about the role of government in society: "Our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics."

And in 2010, Obama lamented the "erosion of civility in the public square" which he said "makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth."

The politics in Obama’s previous speeches may have been more muted, however, due to the events surrounding those years’ prayer breakfasts.

The 2011 event held soon after the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and had among its guests Giffords’s husband Mark Kelly.

And in 2010, the president was, in fact, fairly pointed on the issue of those who questioned his Christianity or his citizenship, telling the audience, "Surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship.”

The event that year also happened soon after the tragic earthquake in Haiti.

NBC’s Shawna Thomas contributed reporting.