President Barack Obama didn't appear riled up Wednesday by a sex scandal that claimed his CIA director. Or even the looming fiscal showdown that could plunge the economy into a recession.
What annoyed Obama more than anything was Republican attacks on United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice.
At a news conference meant to signal Obama understands voters are sick of Washington bickering, the president's voice dripped with contempt over efforts by his 2008 Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, to blame Rice for the administration's handling of the Benghazi killings.
"If Sen. McCain and Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said during his first news conference since Election Day. "And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. 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."
It was the standout moment in an otherwise sedate meeting with the White House press corps. The usually calm, disciplined president gave way to the Obama who gets peeved at what he views as silly political games. And in doing so, Obama served up a blunt reminder that -- despite his own words to the contrary -- little about Washington has changed since he won a second term.
In explaining why Obama reacted so viscerally, White House aides pointed out that McCain and Graham received the same talking points from intelligence officials that Rice used when she claimed the Benghazi attack was caused by an anti-Islamic video. They also said Republican senators defended Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security adviser, when she repeated faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
"We're after an election," Obama said, suggesting he viewed their attacks on Susan Rice as theatrics that they should've dropped by now.
The West Wing had hoped the takeaway Wednesday would be that Obama gets it: Voters want lawmakers and the president to work together. And Obama tried mightily throughout the almost hourlong press conference to strike that tone.
He said he wants to compromise on the fiscal cliff. Even though he demanded that Republicans move his way on eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy, Obama stopped short of drawing a red line on the issue.
"I just want to emphasize: I am open to new ideas," he said. "If the Republican counterparts or some Democrats have a great idea for us to raise revenue, maintain progressivity, make sure the middle class isn't getting hit, reduces our deficit, encourages growth, I'm not going to just slam the door in their face. I want to hear ideas from everybody."
Obama offered his most effusive praise in a long time -- maybe ever -- of his former Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney, saying that "he did a terrific job running the Olympics" and that "he presented some ideas during the course of the campaign that I actually agree with."
The president sounded almost ready to tap Romney for a Bain-style makeover of the government: "That skill set of trying to figure out how do we make something work better applies to the federal government."
Obama also declined to beat his chest as hard as Bush did after winning a second term when he said he had earned "political capital" and planned to use it.
The president did tiptoe right up to the mandate line, saying a "clear majority of the American people" agree with his tax-hike approach to deficit reduction. But then he backed down a bit.
"I don't presume that because I won an election, that everybody suddenly agrees with me on everything. I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms," Obama said, hinting at his occupation with his legacy. "We are very cautious about that."
And even as Obama vigorously defended Rice, he was more accommodating toward congressional efforts to dig into how the U.S. government handled the Benghazi attack.
Few presidents would welcome the "Watergate-style" special congressional committee that McCain and Graham want to create to probe Benghazi, but Obama sounded agnostic Wednesday about what mechanism Congress uses to investigate. "I'm happy to cooperate any way Congress wants," the president said.
While Obama was willing, even eager, to jump into the fray over Benghazi, he seemed intent on keeping his distance from the extramarital affair scandal that drove CIA Director David Petraeus from office last week.
"I have no evidence at this point from what I've seen that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security," Obama said.
Obama never said -- nor was he directly asked -- where the line should be drawn between personal conduct that has no bearing on public office and a private life that calls into question one's ability to serve, particularly in a sensitive national security post. He said Petraeus quit because he didn't live up to his own standards.
"By his own assessment, he did not meet the standards that he felt were necessary as the director of CIA with respect to this personal matter that he is now dealing with with his family and with his wife. And it's on that basis that he tendered his resignation, and it's on that basis that I accepted it," Obama said.
Obama largely punted to the FBI lingering questions about whether he should have been notified sooner about the investigation involving Petraeus, but he prodded FBI Director Robert Mueller to "make some statement to the public." Until now, the public information on the subject has come primarily from anonymous sources. Congressional leaders, too, have seemed intent on exploring the matter behind closed doors. The public and even the rank and file of the Senate Intelligence Committee were not invited to watch as the FBI briefed the panel's leaders, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, on the Petraeus probe Wednesday.
During the news conference, Obama suggested twice that any notification could have led to interference in the investigation. But that blurs the issue a bit. Criminal investigations are sometimes discussed with the White House when national security issues arise. Procedures are in place to make sure the White House doesn't try to send the Justice Department improper signals about how to proceed.
Obama was far more willing to engage with reporters on the issue of immigration reform -- and his staff made sure the issue would be spotlighted.
He called early in his news conference on Telemundo's Lori Montenegro, whom White House officials knew would likely ask about immigration -- a clear signal that the president is ready to move immigration reform to the front burner.
And he underscored Republicans' heavy losses among Latinos last week while pledging to "seize the moment."
Immigration-reform advocates said Wednesday they were gratified to see the president prioritize a legislative effort that has been largely dormant for years. Some reiterated their desire to create a route to citizenship but said that question can be addressed as the process continues.
"The timeline is more important. We need immigration reform to be the first legislative priority, and it's encouraging to hear a firm and specific commitment from the president on this. Then we'll get to language," said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum.
At the end of the 52-minute news conference, Obama made clear that his attempts at controlling the media won't change much in a second term.
He quickly shut down Bloomberg reporter Hans Nichols, who shouted a question about the fiscal cliff as the president tried to leave the podium. This flouted what Obama likes to do, which is answer questions only from reporters on a list prepared by his aides.
"That was a great question," Obama said, his annoyance surfacing again, "but it would be a horrible precedent for me to answer your question just because you yelled it out."
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