WASHINGTON — President Obama said in his victory speech last week that “elections matter.” On Wednesday, he made clear how much the election matters to him — and to the way he intends to govern in his second term.
Appearing in his first post-victory news conference, the customarily cautious Obama spoke like a politician with nothing to lose after winning the last race of his life.
Over the course of an hour, he struck an unabashedly populist tone in characterizing his second-term “mandate” to help the poor and the middle class, and he warned his partisan rivals that voters had sided with his approach to the economy during the long campaign.
There was a confidence and ease in Obama’s manner far removed from the listlessness of his first presidential debate in Denver six weeks ago. There also was a stridency that had been absent during key moments in his first term, much to the dismay of his supporters.
Displaying a rare flash of anger, Obama fiercely defended U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, a leading candidate to be the next secretary of state, from Republican attempts to “besmirch her reputation.” He told GOP senators to “go after me” instead and, showing the potential risks of his approach, they soon did.
“As I said during the campaign, there are going to be times where there are fights, and I think those are fights that need to be had,” Obama said, sounding like someone eager to have them.
“But what I think the American people don’t want to see is a focus on the next election, instead of a focus on them,” he continued. “And I don’t have another election.”
Presidents often use their first post-election news conferences to set a tone and a direction for the second term, as George W. Bush famously attempted in 2004 when he declared that he would spend his “political capital” in the years ahead.
Obama proved no different in Wednesday’s White House news conference, only the 20th of his presidency. His self-assurance on display in the East Room, despite a looming fiscal crisis and a widening scandal involving former CIA director David H. Petraeus, suggested he would take a far more combative approach with Congress than he did during his first term.
The event also reflected a sense that Obama understands the need for a fast start after a draining and negative campaign. Although his term will last another four years, a second-term president’s power slips away sharply after about two.
“Even less really, because the congressional elections will be taking away attention before that,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential scholar. “This is when he has his authority and influence, and his political capital is right there to be spent. He doesn’t need to wait until January.”
With that narrowing window in mind, Obama said Wednesday that he intends to be as ambitious as possible, while avoiding the second-term mistakes that have afflicted at least the past three two-term presidents.
“I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” he said. “We are very cautious about that. On the other hand, I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election.”
Obama reiterated his intention to make immigration reform a legislative priority, saying his staff is talking to lawmakers about how to proceed. He highlighted his strong performance among Latinos in the election, and suggested the result would prompt “some reflection” among Republicans on immigration reform.
Discussing his next move to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Obama said he will not let “diplomatic niceties” stand in the way of a deal, an indication that he may be open to one-on-one talks with the Islamic Republic if an agreement is close.
Yet he acknowledged that victory’s glow has its limits. He characterized climate change as a pressing problem, for example, but said there is no support in Congress for a tax on carbon.
First, Obama must work to avoid a potential economic crisis. On Friday, he will gather congressional leaders at the White House for a first meeting on how to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts, known collectively as the “fiscal cliff,” that are set to take place at year’s end. Many economists think that not doing so could send the economy back into recession.
Obama, though, made clear that Congress, facing midterm elections in two years, should be feeling most of the the pressure to secure a deal.
As he put it: “Obviously, we can all imagine a scenario where we go off the fiscal cliff — if despite the election, if despite the dangers of going over the fiscal cliff and what that means for our economy, that there’s too much stubbornness in Congress.”
But Obama also linked his election victory to the most contentious element of his position: that the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans must expire at the end of the year.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney opposed allowing any of the Bush tax rates to rise. Obama pledged to allow the highest rate to expire and preserve the rest — something he again called on Congress to do now as negotiations begin.
Perhaps the defining moment of the news conference was about an attack on Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and became a major flash point in the presidential campaign.
Much of the Republican criticism has focused on Rice, a candidate to replace departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In mid-October, Rice said on news programs that the Benghazi attack appeared to have arisen spontaneously from public demonstrations sweeping the Middle East over a video disparaging the prophet Muhammad.
The criticism sparked a strong challenge from Obama, who reminded Republicans again that voters had just spoken in his favor and suggested that he would fight for her appointment as secretary of state if he nominates her.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” the president said. “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.”
Within minutes, Graham issued a terse response: “Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack.”