WASHINGTON – President Obama aggressively defended ambassador Susan Rice on Wednesday, using his first postelection news conference to pointedly rebut Republican charges that the diplomat misled the American public in the aftermath of the attacks in Libya.
Obama called “outrageous” suggestions that she has not been forthcoming about attacks that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. His strong defense of Rice – which was the most heated moment of a 50-minute press conference in the East Room of the White House – has implications for any efforts that Senator John Kerry is making toward becoming secretary of state. Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, has been floated for the same position, and some have suggested she is the front-runner despite deep resistance among Republicans.
Obama, in his first press conference in months, staked out his ground and previewed many of the fights that will occur over the coming weeks and months. He renewed a call for immigration reform – and said conversations were already underway with congressional leaders -- but said legislation addressing climate change would be much more difficult.
Obama also praised General David Petraeus’ record, while saying it was too early to tell whether his extramarital affair with a woman writing his biography had jeopardized national security in any way. Obama also pledged anew to fight any Republican efforts to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, while demanding that Congress immediately extend tax cuts for the middle class.
Obama suggested he would not again agree to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone. While he said he was still open for compromise, he has previously opposed any efforts to extend tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 a year.
“We should not hold the middle class hostage while we debate tax cuts on the wealthy,” Obama said. “What I am not going to do is extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, which we cannot afford.”
But Obama must now decide whether to use the political capital he earned in his re-election over Republican nominee Mitt Romney on a bitter nomination fight over who replaces Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Wednesday pledged to block any attempts to make Rice secretary of state. Obama said he had not made a decision on who will replace Clinton, but he said Rice’s comments on Benghazi would not preclude him from naming her.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Mr. Obama said.
“When they go after the UN ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,’’ Obama added. ‘‘And should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America, in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her. That’s not a determination that I’ve made yet.”
Graham and McCain wasted little time.
“Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi,” Graham said in a statement. “I think you failed as commander in chief before, during, and after the attack.”
Both Graham and McCain – as well as Senator Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire – went to the Senate floor just after Obama’s press conference to call for further investigations.
“This president and this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover-up, neither of which are acceptable to the American people,” McCain said.
Graham later told reporters that he would never support Rice if she were nominated for secretary of state, saying the president would have “one hell of a fight” if she becomes his pick.
“John Kerry is a very qualified man,” he volunteered. “If the president thought John Kerry could serve his administration and the country I would be very inclined to support him.”
Obama also said he had not yet reached out to Romney, but said he hoped to meet with the former Massachusetts governor before the end of the year. Obama revealed little about what he wanted to convey to Romney other than to “have a chance to sit down and talk.”
He praised him for running the 2002 Winter Olympics saying, “that skillset of trying to figure out, ‘How do we make something work’ better applies to the federal government.’ ”
“I’m not either prejudging what he’s interested in doing nor am I suggesting I’ve got some specific assignment,” Obama said. “But what I want to do is to — is to get ideas from him and see if — see if there’s some ways that we can potentially work together.“
Obama last held a press conference in June, during an economic summit in Mexico. Even then, he took only three questions.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Rowland of the Globe staff contributed to this report.