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

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

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.

Obama also called for action on climate change, and in response to a question from New York Times reporter Mark Landler, said he was looking at ways to get started quickly. However, he said, he intended to undertake a national education campaign on the problem, noting "regional differences" in attitudes about the issue. 

"There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.

"If, on the other hand," he continued, "we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support."

The Mandate

In his opening remarks, Obama discussed his vision for economic recovery -- “jobs and growth” -- which he described as a mix of investments in infrastructure, clean energy and other technologies, as well as research and development overall, while “reducing our deficit in a balanced and responsible way.”

His lack of specificity may leave some progressives nervous, especially when it comes to all the noise Republicans continue to make about the nation’s broadest safety-net programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But if the aim truly is to open a negotiation as Congress faces the consequences of its deal on last year’s debt-ceiling legislation -- that they would hammer out a deficit-reduction deal or face a slew of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts -- any vagueness could simply be strategy for enticing the Republicans to lay out a plan rather than simply opposing the president.

Recalling the debt-ceiling battle of 2011, when House Republicans opposed a revenue-raising measure that would have allowed the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on the wealthiest Americans -- which led Obama to go along with the extension of tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income-earners -- CNN’s Jessica Yellin asked Obama why the American people and Congress should believe “you won’t cave again.”

“But what I said at the time is what I meant, which is this was a one-time proposition,” Obama replied. “And you know, what I have told leaders privately as well as publicly is that we cannot afford to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. What we can do is make sure that middle-class taxes don’t go up.”

The president then reiterated the challenge he issued last Friday to House Republicans: to support a bill that has already passed the Senate to extend those tax cuts only to the first $250,000 earned by a family. “We can do that next week,” Obama said.

Obama knows it’s highly unlikely that House Speaker John Boehner would dare to recommend the president’s proposal to his members, especially in the current lame duck session. What the president is doing is revealing to the rest of America the obstructionist nature of the GOP Congress. He’s basically saying, if you guys hate any kind of tax increase on anybody, and Democrats hate the idea of a tax increase on people who are not rich, why don’t we agree not to raise taxes on people who aren’t rich?

In calling the question, he lifts the curtains on the dynamics between the parties, showing how Republicans oppose him simply on principle. And that creates a setting in which, if the Republicans refuse to budge and the massive spending cuts of the debt-ceiling deal consequently take place, the GOP is clearly the problem.

Asked by Fox News’ Ed Henry how he envisioned the mandate he won by virtue of his re-election, Obama said, “With respect to the issue of mandate, I’ve got one mandate. I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class. That’s my mandate. That’s what the American people said. They said, work really hard to help us.

He spoke of the people he met on the campaign trail, including small business-owners who stayed open during the recession by not taking a salary, and young activists in “disadvantaged communities” working to improve their lot.

“When you talk to these folks,” Obama said, “you say to yourself, man, they deserve a better government than they’ve been getting.”

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