Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Eight days after winning re-election, President Obama gave his first press conference since June. That five months have passed between press conferences is one thing; some observers have also noted that past presidents in recent history haven’t waited nearly as long after winning to take questions from a room full of reporters.
In a little less than an hour, the president fielded 16 questions from 10 members of the press. Here’s what he talked about.
Asked whether he could assure the American people that there were no breaches of national security or classified information in the Petraeus scandal—which has grown to ensnare General John Allen, Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—Obama said there was “no evidence at this point that classified information was disclosed in any way that would have a negative impact on security.”
The timeline of the scandal has been curious, given that news about the months-long FBI investigation didn’t break until after the election. Members of Congress including Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) have complained that lawmakers and the president should have been informed of the investigation sooner.
“The FBI has its own protocols,” Obama told reporters. “I’m gonna let them examine those protocols and make statements to the public generally.”
The president said that he would withhold judgment on whether he should have known sooner about the Petraeus scandal until after that review is complete.
The fiscal cliff nears. Republican leadership holds their ground on extending the Bush tax cuts for all levels of income—currently they’re set to expire on January 1st, when all that other scary stuff is supposed to happen.
President Obama used the press conference to reiterate his campaign promise to preserve those cuts only for income below $250,000, and let them expire for income above.
After all, this was perhaps the most-repeated point of his entire candidacy.
“This shouldn’t be a surprise,” the president said. “I argued for a balanced, responsible approach [to bringing down the deficit], and part of that included making sure the wealthiest Americans pay a little bit more.”
“I think every voter out there understood that that was an important debate and the majority of voters agreed with me,” Obama continued. “More voters agreed on this issue than voted for me.”
Latino voters helped deliver Obama a victory last Tuesday, and a wake-up call to a Republican Party that only attracted less than 30 percent of their ballots.
As that bloc increases in electoral importance, so does the need for politicians to craft sound immigration reform. Conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer have already petitioned the GOP to soften their stance and include the elusive “pathway to citizenship” as part of comprehensive reform.
When the issue came up at Wednesday’s press conference, Obama said action would come soon.
“I expect a bill will be introduced and we can begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration,” Obama said. “Conversations are already taking place about what this looks like.”
The president listed increased border security, a crackdown on companies that purposely hire undocumented workers, and a pathway to legal status for those living in the country if they meet certain eligibility requirements. “Pay back taxes, learn English, pay a fine—but give an avenue whereby they can resolve their status,” he said.
An issue that refuses to go away for the Obama administration, the September 11th attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya came up once again on Wednesday.
A reporter asked President Obama about the possibility of nominating UN Ambassador Susan Rice to be Secretary of State. Rice made waves after going on Sunday talk shows the week after the attacks and attributing the violence to an anti-Muslim YouTube video, which later turned out not to be true.
The reporter noted that Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for “Watergate-style” confirmation hearings if Rice receives the nomination.
“If John McCain and Lindsey Graham want to go after someone, they should go after me,” Obama retorted. “I’m happy to have that discussion. But to go after our UN ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi, is outrageous.”
Pressed on whether Obama issued any orders to protect the lives of those at the embassy on September 11th, Obama replied, “My orders to the national security team was to do whatever you need to do to make sure they’re safe.”
“If people don’t think we did everything we can to make sure that we save the lives of folks I sent there, you don’t know how the Defense Department, the State Department, the CIA thinks.”
Toward the end of the press conference climate change reared its head. The issue was mostly absent from the campaign trail and entirely avoided during the presidential debates.
Asked whether damage from Sandy renewed a sense of urgency to pursue climate change legislation, such as a carbon tax, Obama acknowledged that action was necessary and human behavior had a negative impact on the environment. But now wouldn’t be the time to do it.
“Understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on jobs, the economy, and growth,” Obama said. “If the message is somehow, we’re gonna ignore jobs and growth, simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s gonna go for that. I won’t go for that.”
Obama cautioned that doesn’t mean climate change won’t get some attention after lawmakers deal with the fiscal cliff. The president said we could expect to hear more about an agenda in the coming months.
We’ll see if it takes another five for him to do the next press conference.