Obama claims mandate on taxes, warns Republicans of new political capital

President Obama claimed a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy at a Wednesday afternoon press conference where he also refused to “meddle” into the FBI’s investigation into ex-CIA Director David Petraeus.

In the 53-minute news conference, his first formal question-and-answer session with reporters in months, Obama — using the power of the bully pulpit — repeatedly mentioned his electoral victory and set the tone by warning Republicans in Congress he’d earned political capital in advance of talks to begin Friday at the White House on avoiding the “fiscal cliff.”

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In one of the more intense answers, the president also offered a forceful defense of embattled U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, inviting Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and others to pick a fight with him over the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

“If Sen. McCain or Sen. Graham or others want to go after someone, they should go after me,” said Obama, growing more heated by the moment, calling the attacks on Rice and their efforts to “besmirch her reputation ... outrageous.”

Obama said Rice — who after the Sept. 11 attack inaccurately described it on cable news as a protest spun out of control — had done “exemplary” work with “professionalism and toughness and grace.” And he sought to telegraph a message, in no uncertain terms, that he would not stand for any criticism from Republicans.

“I don’t think there’s any debate in this country that when you have four Americans killed that’s a problem,” Obama said. “They won’t get any debate from me on that. But 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. ”

Obama’s confidence from his reelection just a week ago was reflected in the way he answered questions on everything from immigration reform to climate change to the nature of his electoral victory.

“I don’t presume that because I won an election that everybody suddenly agrees with me on everything,” he told reporters gathered in the East Room of the White House. But a moment later, he added, that he “didn’t get reelected just to bask in reelection.”

Obama made it clear he wants to use his political capital immediately, citing his victory in claiming a mandate on the looming fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases. He said his insistence on higher taxes for the wealthiest of Americans "shouldn't be a surprise to anybody."

“I argued for a balanced, responsible approach and part of that included making sure that the wealthiest Americans pay a little bit more,” Obama said. “I think every voter out there understood that was an important debate, and the majority of voters agreed with me.”

While Obama said he was “open to compromise and new ideas” on the fiscal cliff, he appeared to rule out a deal that would raise revenues solely based on eliminating deductions and loopholes for the wealthiest taxpayers. He insisted that unlike in his first term, he would not cave on extending the Bush-era tax cuts.

“What I'm not going to do is to extend further a tax cut for folks who don't need it, which would cost close to a trillion dollars, and it's very difficult to see how you make up that trillion dollars, if we're serious about deficit reduction, just by closing loopholes and deductions,” the president said.

The president urged Congress to immediately move on legislation that would preserve the Bush-era cuts for the middle class and the poor, arguing repeatedly that "we should not hold the middle class hostage while we debate tax cuts for the wealthy."

Much of the press conference focused on the probe surrounding Petraeus, a story that has overshadowed the president’s post-election messaging on the fiscal cliff. Obama, who was told of the investigation — which began over the summer — two days after his reelection victory, said he didn’t want to weigh in.

“One of the challenges here is we’re not supposed to meddle in criminal investigations, and that’s been our practice,” the president said. “It is also possible that had we been told, then you’d be sitting here asking, ‘Why were you interfering in a criminal investigation?' I think it’s best right now for us to just see how this whole process is unfolding.”

Obama also told reporters that it was important not to “pre-judge” situations involving criminal investigations.

“The FBI has own its own protocols in terms of how they proceed,” he said. “I’m going to let [FBI] Director Robert Mueller examine those protocols and make some statements to the public generally.”

Obama also said that he had no evidence that any classified information was disclosed that would have had a negative impact on national security.

On the fiscal cliff, Republican leaders in Congress have indicated that they are open to raising revenues by closing existing tax loopholes, but would oppose efforts by Democrats to raise the tax rates on the wealthiest Americans.

“When it comes to the great economic challenges of the moment, saying that you want a balanced approach is not a plan,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “Saying people need to pay their fair share isn’t a plan. The tedious repetition of poll-tested talking points is simply that. And the longer the president uses them as a substitute for leadership, the more difficult it will be to solve our problems.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney had said earlier in the week that Obama was committed to his original budget plan, which would raise $1.6 trillion in new revenue through the repeal of the Bush-era tax rates on households with an income of more than $250,000.

“The President has put forward a very specific plan that will be what he brings to the table when he sits down with congressional leaders, and that's a plan that builds on the $1.1 trillion in spending cuts that he’s already signed into law, and finds other savings both in discretionary spending and in entitlement programs, $340 billion additional savings in our healthcare entitlement programs, and insists as the essence of balance that revenue be included — $1.6 trillion in revenue,” Carney told reporters on Tuesday.

At the press conference on Wednesday, Obama took 16 questions from 10 reporters.

Asked about his plans for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama said that he’s “confident we can get immigration reform done.” Answering a question about climate change on the heels of Superstorm Sandy, the powerful storm that battered parts of the East Coast, Obama acknowledged, “we haven’t done as much as we need to do.”

“I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions,” he said. “And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”

At the end of the press conference, a reporter, who was not called on by Obama, shouted out a question to the president on the fiscal cliff and whether he would be mulling a short-term postponement of cuts.

Obama praised the question, but refused to answer.

"That's a great question, but it would be a horrible precedent for me to answer your question just because you yelled it out," Obama said to laughter from the press corps. "So thank you very much guys."

This story was updated at 4:35 p.m.