President Obama took questions from the media for the first time since his re-election Wednesday, defending U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's handling of the Sept. 11 attack in Libya and vowing to stay focused on the economy amid the disruption of the scandal surrounding Gen. David Petraeus.
WASHINGTON — President Obama made his first public comments on the widening scandal involving former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus and reaffirmed his opposition to continued tax cuts for the wealthy as he addressed a broad range of issues Wednesday during his first news conference since winning re-election.
ON THE PETRAEUS SCANDAL
The president said he has seen no evidence that national security was threatened by the widening sex scandal that ensnared Petraeus, his top military commander in Afghanistan.
Obama told the White House news conference that he doesn't have all the information about the probe involving Petraeus, who resigned as head of the CIA last week after disclosing an affair. He said he is withholding judgment on the timing of the revelations that his CIA director was under investigation for a possible national security violation.
The House Intelligence Committee was holding hearings on that very point Wednesday.
hortly after the President's news conference, it was reported that 'substantial' classified data was found on the computer of Petraeus' mistress, Paula Broadwell, according to law enforcement and national security officials. The contents of the classified material remained under investigation. A US official said Wednesday that the Army had suspended Broadwell's security clearance.
Officials have said that Obama was not told about the investigation until after the election. He says he has "a lot of confidence generally" in the FBI, which is conducting the inquiry.
ON U.N. AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE
Obama is defending U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the aftermath of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya and calling Republican criticism of her outrageous.
Obama pushed back against GOP senators who said they would do whatever is necessary to scuttle Rice's nomination if the president picks her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The president said if Sen. John McCain wants to go after someone, he should challenge the president, not Rice.
McCain told reporters earlier Wednesday that he would do all he could to block a Rice nomination.
Sen. Lindsey Graham said he didn't trust Rice.
ON THE ECONOMY
Obama vowed not to cave to Republicans who have pressed for tax cuts first passed by President George W. Bush to be extended for all income earners, a key sticking point in negotiations with Republicans over the impending "fiscal cliff." He said, "The American people understood what they were getting" when they voted for him after a campaign that focused heavily on taxes.
Obama has long opposed extending the cuts for families making more than $250,000 a year, but he gave into GOP demands in 2010 when the cuts were up for renewal.
That won't happen this time around, he said Wednesday.
"Two years ago the economy was in a different situation," Obama said. "But what I said at the time was what I meant. Which was this is a one-time proposition."
The president and Congress are also seeking to avoid across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect because lawmakers failed to reach a deal to reduce the federal deficit. Failure to act would lead to spending cuts and higher taxes on all Americans, with middle-income families paying an average of about $2,000 more next year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
Obama said he was "open to new ideas" but would not allow current tax rates to continue for the top 2 percent of wage earners, drawing a line for Republicans who say they will not tolerate any tax rate increases. Asked if the tax rates for the rich had to return to Clinton-era levels, Obama indicated he was open to negotiations.
Obama says he's encouraged that the Syrian opposition has formed a new, more representative leadership council. But he says the U.S. isn't ready to recognize the group as a "government in exile" or to arm it.
Obama said that the U.S. believes that the new council is "a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people."
But he says his administration isn't prepared to recognize the group as a successor to Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
Obama also says the U.S. isn't currently considering sending weapons to Assad foes because of concerns the arms might fall into the hands of extremists and damage regional security.
On Tuesday, France became the first Western country to formally recognize the new opposition coalition.
America must "seize the moment," Obama says, to seek an overhaul of the immigration system and he expects that work to start soon after his inauguration for a second term.
Obama says conversations are already taking place among his staff and members of Congress.
The president says comprehensive immigration reform should include a path to legal status for those who came to the U.S. illegally seeking work. He says those immigrants should pay back taxes, learn English and potentially pay fines.
Obama is urging lawmakers to codify his decision earlier this year to stop deporting young illegal immigrants brought here by their parents.
He says the country needs to build on momentum from the last week's election.
Obama says there is still time for the U.S. and Iran to resolve an impasse over Iran's nuclear program, and that there should be a way for Iran to enjoy "peaceful nuclear power" while still meeting international obligations and providing assurances that they are not developing nuclear weapons.
Obama said he "can't promise that Iran will walk through the door they need to walk through," but he wants to see a diplomatic solution.
Iran is weighing a more confrontational strategy over its nuclear program, threatening to boost levels of uranium enrichment unless the West agrees to ease sanctions that have harmed Iran's economy.
The White House has indicated willingness to pursue one-on-one talks with Iran, but no deal has been reached.
Obama says he hasn't yet scheduled a meeting with Republican Mitt Romney, but that he hopes to have the chance to talk with his presidential rival before the end of the year.
Obama said the election was only a week ago, and that everybody needs to catch their breath.
He said he thinks Romney did a terrific job with the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Obama said he's not pre-judging how the former Massachusetts governor may be interested in helping the country, nor does he have a specific assignment — but Obama said he does want to talk about some of Romney's ideas.
ON CLIMATE CHANGE
Obama says he wants to begin a national "conversation" on climate change, adding that his administration has taken steps to combat global warming, such as sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
But he said, "we haven't done as much as we need to" on global warming, which was virtually ignored during the presidential campaign until Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.
Obama did not outline specific legislation, but said he would talk with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find ways to make short-term progress to reduce carbon emissions. After that, he said the country should begin long-term efforts "to make sure that this is not something we're passing on to future generations."