Obama stands up for UN ambassador over Benghazi attack
President takes a tough stand with Republicans while supporting UN ambassador, but he leaves door open for compromise on tax increases
In his first news conference since winning re-election, US President Barack Obama has shown he is ready to go toe-to-toe with Republicans over fallout from the deadly attack on the US consulate in Libya, even as he left open the door to compromise over year-end tax increases.
Speaking in the East Room of the White House, the typically cool Obama displayed a rare flash of anger in defending Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, whom some Republicans have accused of spreading inaccurate information about the September 11 attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Rice is a potential pick for secretary of state, although some Republican senators have sworn to block her nomination.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were picking on an "easy target," he said. If they "want to go after somebody, they should go after me".
The tough talk was a clear contrast from Obama's core post-election message: he's ready to deal with House Republicans to avoid the tax rises and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect in the new year, which could smack the economy back into a recession.
He also weighed in on the scandal involving former CIA director David Petraeus and General John Allen, commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, which has become an enormous distraction just as Obama had hoped to focus on the federal budget.
"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," he said.
The president's remarks, and shifting tone, reflected the mix of issues that await him. As Obama lays the groundwork for his second term, he will look to a familiar cast of characters on Capitol Hill for aid with legislation, a potentially legacy-making tax and budget deal and nominations to replace cabinet secretaries.
The fight over one post is brewing even before Obama names his choice. Graham and McCain have pounced on talk of Rice's possible nomination and used it as a cudgel in the fight over when the White House knew what prompted the September 11 attack that killed four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya.
Republicans have accused the administration of downplaying the incident for political reasons when US officials initially described it as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic film, rather than a terrorist attack. Rice was among the first administration officials to make extended comments on the matter.
"To besmirch her reputation is outrageous," Obama said. He understood the debate over whether the Benghazi compound was properly secured, he said, "but when they go after the UN ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me".
McCain took to the Senate floor to respond. "This president or this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover-up," he said.
Obama will have to try to keep the heated rhetoric from souring negotiations with Republicans to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, the tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the new year unless the White House and lawmakers compromise.
Halting middle-class tax increases would limit the threat, Obama said, adding, "We could get that done by next week".
The Senate has already passed legislation that would preserve current rates for income up to US$250,000 for families and US$200,000 for individuals.
Obama is scheduled to meet congressional leaders from both parties today.
House speaker John Boehner has made an opening offer that would extend all of the expiring tax rates for another year while Congress and the White House work on a broader overhaul of the tax code. The White House has been cool to Boehner's offer.