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Obama Calls Out GOP on Benghazi Smears, Pushes House on Middle-Class Tax Break

The president addressed climate change, immigration and job creation, and issued a warning to two top GOP senators.

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In yet another demonstration of the changed tone he debuted in his election-night victory speech, President Barack Obama, in his first press conference since winning re-election, both challenged his opponents to act in the interest of the overwhelming majority of Americans, and castigated two high-profile senators for launching a media campaign against the possible nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to head the State Department when Hillary Clinton leaves the post. He also dinged his former rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, with faint praise.

Asked by ABC News' Jonathan Karl to respond to calls from Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-Ga., for a “Watergate-style investigation” into the events surrounding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the president’s expression hardened as he addressed the media campaign the two have waged against Rice. Republicans have targeted Rice because of statements she made on the Sunday talk shows following the attack that it appeared to be a spontaneous action triggered by the same anti-Islam video that set off a mob in Egypt that same week.

After first praising Rice for her work as the U.S. representative to the U.N., Obama, speaking in the East Room of the White House (video here), issued a dare to the two senators.

“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me -- and I’m happy to have that discussion with them,” Obama replied. “But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous...when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”

The implication was that the two were focusing on Rice because she’s a woman. (She’s also African American.)

Obama went on to say that he has not decided who should replace Clinton if, as expected, she resigns as secretary of state, but wouldn’t hesitate to nominate Rice if he thought she was the best person for the job.

The exchange is significant because Obama’s new, sterner tone reflects not only the broader latitude any president has in a second term, but also the post-election makeup of the Senate. The Republicans took a shellacking in the 2012 elections, with the Democrats making a net gain of two seats despite an electoral advantage for the Republicans, who had only 10 seats up for election, compared to the Democrats’ 23.

Asked whether he intended to enlist Romney's help in shaping policy on the economy, the president noted that he admired some things about  the former Massachusetts governor's record. "I do think he did a terrific job running the Olympics," Obama said. "And you know, that skill set of trying to figure out how do we make something work better applies to the federal government." Romney once boasted of getting more federal help for the Salt Lake City Olympics he oversaw than any other Olympics held on U.S. soil. Much of that money was invested in roads and infrastructure, with labor provided by union workers.

Climate Change and Immigration

Fielding a question from Lori Montenegro of Telemundo, Obama named comprehensive immigration reform as a priority, as well as passage of the DREAM Act, which would allow a path to citizenship for people who were raised in the U.S. by parents who were undocumented immigrants. 

"This has not historically been a partisan issue," Obama said of comprehensive immigration reform. "We’ve had President Bush, John McCain and others who have supported comprehensive immigration reform in the past. So we need to seize the moment... And in fact, some conversations, I think, are already beginning to take place among senators and congressmen and my staff about what would this look like." He said that he expected to see a bill introduced not long after his inauguration.