President Obama, at News Conference, Finesses Questions on David Petraeus Scandal

The president praised his former CIA director and delivered a tongue lashing to Republicans who have ripped Ambassador Susan Rice. Howard Kurtz reports.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama managed to avoid getting buried under an avalanche of David Petraeus questions on Wednesday and took an unusually hard shot at two Republican snators who have asailed his U.N. ambassador over the fatal attack in Benghazi.

If his goal was to avoid fueling the media fire over the Petraeus scandal, Obama probably succeeded. But it was telling that the first question at the press conference, asked by the Associated Press, was about the sex scandal that led to the CIA director’s downfall, and it will probably overshadow anything else the president said.

Obama said he had “no evidence at this point” that Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell, or Gen. John Allen’s correspondence with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, has endangered national security. He took pains to praise Petraeus for an “extraordinary career” and tried to cast the extramarital relationship that prompted his resignation as a “side note” that should not tarnish his image.

Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if he should have been notified sooner of the FBI probe of Petraeus, Obama said it was possible that “had we been told, you’d be sitting here asking why were you interfering with a criminal investigation.”

Obama said he was withholding judgment on the FBI’s handling of the mess and did not directly address the probe involving Allen, whose nomination as NATO commander has been put on hold by the White House.

The president was relaxed and confident in his first post-election news conference in an East Room packed with journalists; a new four-year term will do that for you. The contrast with his first meet-the-press session after the 2010 midterms, when he had to address a shellacking by the Republicans, was striking.

The most intense moment by far was when the president was asked about criticism of Susan Rice by two leading GOP senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have indicated they would oppose her nomination as secretary of state.

Obama began by appearing to diplomatically sidestep the question. But then, as he kept talking, he got madder.

Rice has “done exemplary work,” Obama said, and if McCain and Graham “want to go after somebody” on the attack in Libya, “they should go after me. For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi” other than deliver remarks prepared by others was to “besmirch her reputation.” And, said Obama, that was “outrageous.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Obama said that while he hadn’t made a decision on a successor to Hillary Clinton, if he wanted to nominate Rice, he would. Which very much made it sound like he will tap Rice for Foggy Bottom—and dare the Republicans to filibuster an African-American nominee.

Obama’s main goal on Wednesday was to strike a firm tone in favor of ending tax cuts for the wealthy and for immigration reform. He seemed less tentative and meandering than in many such appearances earlier in his term. If anyone had forgotten he just won a resounding reelection, the president wasn’t shy about reminding them, saying a majority of Americans agree with him on protecting the middle class, even more than voted for him. With the “fiscal cliff” deadline approaching at year’s end, Obama said more than once that the Republicans are “holding the middle class hostage” for continued tax breaks for the wealthy, and tried a new twist: even the richest taxpayers would benefit if the House would act now to extend reductions for first $250,000 of income.

In a nod to the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, Obama said even some Republican commentators have said the party shouldn’t continue to protect millionaires at all costs.

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Obama also cited strong Hispanic turnout on Election Day in making a more explicit pitch for dealing with illegal immigrants that included a “pathway for legal status.”

Obama soft-pedaled the idea that he had won a mandate and, in an interesting note, said he was “more than familiar with the literature on presidential overreach in second terms.”

There was one last twist: Obama patiently listened to a high-decibel question after he had closed the presser by thanking the reporters for attending. Then he said it would set a bad precedent for him to answer a shouted question. Reelected presidents can do that.