Speaking to reporters for the first time since he was re-elected, Obama was pressed on the widening scandal thats ensnared recently resigned CIA Director David Petraeus and Marine Gen. John Allen, but he said he didnt think thered been any negative national security disclosures and that hed withhold judgment on whether he shouldve been alerted sooner to the FBI investigation.
He also was quizzed about his administrations handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and he delivered a heated defense of his United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, whose name has been floated as a potential successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Reflecting the heightened importance of the Hispanic vote, he called on a reporter for the Spanish-language television network Telemundo and told her he expected a comprehensive immigration bill would be introduced very soon after my inauguration.
He gave some of his most extensive remarks since hes been president on climate change, though he concluded that theres not the political will in Washington to get much done, saying it would involve tough choices.
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, if the message is somehow were going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I dont think anybodys gonna go for that, Obama said. I wont go for that.
The president, who hadnt fielded questions from an official news conference since June, opened his remarks by calling on Congress to extend middle-class tax cuts immediately, before starting work on a larger package to address the deficit.
We should not hold the middle class hostage while we debate tax cuts for the wealthy, he said in his opening remarks.
Obama infuriated Democrats two years ago by siding with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest, but he said Wednesday that it was a one-time proposition and what Im not going to do is to extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent.
He argued that voters had endorsed his position, even if congressional Republicans do not.
This shouldnt be a surprise to anybody, the president said. When it comes to how we reduce our deficit, I argued for a balanced, responsible approach, and part of that included making sure that the wealthiest Americans pay a little bit more.
But he stopped short of setting a red line on raising taxes for the wealthiest, saying he was open to new ideas and that he realized were going to have to compromise.
Hes invited congressional leaders to the White House on Friday for negotiations aimed at averting an impending fiscal cliff. The Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire at the end of this year, and automatic spending cuts totaling $109 billion in fiscal 2013 that could affect a host of government services and functions are slated to take effect Jan. 2.
The voters, Obama said, want to make sure that middle-class folks arent bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges. They expect that folks at the top are doing their fair share as well, and thats going to be my guiding principle during these negotiations, but more importantly during the next four years of my administration.
Yet he stopped short of declaring a sweeping mandate, noting that he was more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms.
He said he was very cautious about overreaching, but added, I didnt get re-elected just to bask in re-election. I got elected to do work on behalf of American families and small businesses all across the country, who are still recovering from a really bad recession but are hopeful about the future.
He offered praise for his vanquished Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, saying he hoped to sit down with him to talk about working together.
Therere certain aspects of Gov. Romneys record and his ideas that I think could be very helpful, Obama said, citing Romneys tenure running the Olympics.
He also hotly defended U.N. Ambassador Rice, whom Republican senators have vowed to block if shes nominated to succeed Clinton. Republicans have been critical of her performance on television in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but Obama praised what he called exemplary work and said Rice had appeared on television at the White Houses request and given her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her.
Obama has called for a balance of tax increases and spending cuts to slash the deficit, but he offered no specifics on spending reductions other than to say he thinks the United States needs to take a serious look at entitlements, noting that health care costs represent the biggest driver of our deficits.
He left the lectern after cutting off a reporter who asked a question about how hed cut $1.2 trillion in spending.
That was a great question, but it would be a horrible precedent for me to answer your question just because you yelled it out, he said.