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Obama: 'I Didn't Get Re-Elected Just To Bask In Re-Election'

President Obama during his news conference at the White House today.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama during his news conference at the White House today.

Eight days after his re-election — with the fiscal cliff looming, questions being raised about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and a scandal having forced the director of the CIA to resign — President Obama today told reporters "I didn't re-elected just to bask in re-election. I got re-elected to do work."

In his first full-scale Q&A with White House reporters since March, the president signaled there may be some room for compromise on taxes. While he repeated that the wealthiest Americans must be asked to do more and that the middle class can't be left footing any such bill, Obama also did not insist on raising tax rates for the wealthiest to Clinton-era rates.

He said that "comprehensive" immigration reform legislation will be on Capitol Hill soon after Inauguration Day.

And in the most-heated moment, he defended U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice against criticism of things she said after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. If Republicans "want to go after somebody, they should go after me," he said. "To besmirch her reputation is outrageous." While not saying whether he will or won't nominate her to be secretary of state, the president said that if he did he would push hard for her confirmation.

The scandal that has obsessed Washington for the past five days — the extramarital affair that led to CIA Director David Petraeus's resignation last Friday — came up, but was only the subject of a few questions. The president said he has no evidence at this time that national security was imperiled by that scandal. He also said he's withholding judgment on whether the FBI should have informed him sooner about the investigation.

Listen to NPR Coverage of the News Conference

We posted updates during the news conference. Scroll down and read "up" if you want to see how it unfolded.

Update at 2:25 p.m. ET. To Get U.S. Support, Syrian Opposition Must Be "Democratic ... Inclusive ... Moderate":

The final question is about Syria and whether the U.S. will arm the opposition to President Bashar Assad. The president talks again about how the U.S. has long insisted that Assad must go, says that he is encouraged by the recent formation of another coalition of opponents, and that to get American support the opposition must be "committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria."

As the president steps away, a reporter from Bloomberg News shouts out a question about whether lawmakers might kick the fiscal cliff can down the road. Obama jokes that it's an excellent question, but he would set a terrible precedent if he answered one after the news conference is officially over. And with that, he turns to leave.

Update at 2:22 p.m. ET. Climate Change Agenda Must Be Paired With Job Growth:

If lawmakers can come up with plans to "create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change," Obama says, "I think that's something the American people would support." He says he'll focus on combining those elements.

Update at 2:15 p.m. ET. Will Push For Dialogue With Iran:

"I will try to make a push in coming months to see if we can open a dialogue" with Iran and the international community about that nation's nuclear ambitions, Obama says.

"We're not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon," he adds, but "there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically."

Update at 2:13 p.m. ET. "Stubbornness" Could Push Us Over The Fiscal Cliff:

What might push the federal government over that precipice? "If there's too much stubbornness" in Congress, the president says.

Update at 2:10 p.m. ET. Understands "Overreach," But Is There "To Do Work":

After saying he's aware that some presidents have been guilty of "overreach" in their second terms, the president adds that "on the other hand I didn't re-elected just to bask in re-election. I got re-elected to do work."

Update at 2:08 p.m. ET. "Outrageous" To Besmirch Amb. Rice's Reputation:

Some heat comes into the president's voice when he's asked about comments by Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham that they would oppose the nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state. They have been critical of things she said after the Benghazi attack about what led to that tragic incident that cost 4 Americans their lives.

"She gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her," the president says. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. ... To besmirch her reputation is outrageous."

Update at 2:02 p.m. ET. Wants To Do "Even Better":

"I hope and intend to be an even better president in the second term than I was in the first," Obama says.

Update at 2 p.m. ET. Romney Might Have Good Ideas On Making Government Work Better:

After his re-election, the president said he wants to meet with Republican nominee Mitt Romney before year's end. "I do think he did a terrific job running the [Salt Lake] Olympics," Obama says. And Romney's skill at making something like that work better, "applies to the federal government."

Update at 1:57 p.m. ET. On Tax Rates, No "Red Lines":

Asked if there's "no deal" with Republicans unless tax rates for the wealthiest go back to Clinton-era levels, the president doesn't say yes or no. Instead, he says "I am open to new ideas" from Republicans or Democrats. What he won't accept, Obama adds, are "vague" ideas that eventually force lawmakers to ask the middle class to do more.

"I'm less concerned about red lines, per se," he says, than ending up in a situation where the wealthiest Americans aren't paying "as much as they should" and the middle class is being asked to do more to cut the deficit and reduce the debt.

Update at 1:53 p.m. ET. "Comprehensive" Immigration Legislation "Very Soon After My Inauguration":

"We will get a bill introduced ... and begin the process in Congress ... very soon after my inauguration," the president says after being asked about immigration reform.

The elements, he says, will include further strengthening of border security, "serious penalities for companies" that hire illegals, and "a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country, not engaged in criminal activity and are here simply to work."

Update at 1:46 p.m. ET. On Taxes, Why Won't he "Cave Again?"

Asked why Americans should think he'll stand firm against extending the "Bush tax cuts" for the wealthiest taxpayers — since he "caved in" once before — Obama says that "two years ago, the economy was in a different situation. ... What I said at the time is what I meant — that [it] was a one-time proposition" when he agreed to extend the tax cuts for everyone.

"We cannot afford to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy," the president adds. He won't "extend a tax cuts for folks who don't need it" when deficit-reduction is so important.

Update at 1:42 p.m. ET. Did CIA Director David Petraeus's Affair Threaten National Security?

"I have no evidence, at this point ... that classified information was disclosed in any way that would have an impact on national security," Obama says.

On whether he and the American people should have been told before Election Day about the investigation of Petraeus, Obama says he will let the FBI determine whether its notification protocols are appropriate and were followed.

Update at 1:37 p.m. ET. On The Economy And The Fiscal Cliff:

The president begins his opening remarks with subjects he probably hopes will come up a lot.

"Our economy is still recovering from a very deep and damaging crisis, so our top priority has to be creating jobs," he says. And on the "fiscal cliff," he says that "both parties can work together" to keep taxes from going up on everyone and to prevent deep spending cuts across most federal programs.

He's been encouraged by some of the things he's heard from Republicans, Obama says, and says he wants to repeat that he's open to others' ideas.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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