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Meet Second-Term Obama, Newly Resolved but Reasonable

Washington

There’s a difference between saying you have a mandate and acting like you have one. In his first news conference since his re-election, President Obama took on bullies, scrooges and unruly reporters. He batted away questions over the scandal that brought down Gen. David Petraeus, stood up for his U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice against attacks from Republican senators, and warned that if House Republicans didn’t act on the question of tax cuts, the holidays would be ruined. In the hour-long news conference on Wednesday, Obama took a measured tone, but he clearly feels like he has the upper hand. “The American people understood what they were getting when they gave me this incredible privilege of being in office for another four years,” he said.

The least substantive but most dramatic moment in the East Room question-and-answer session came when the president took on Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Both men have pledged to block Susan Rice’s nomination for secretary of state if Obama taps her to replace Hillary Clinton. Days after the attack in Libya that left four Americans dead, Rice went on the Sunday shows to say it was caused by a spontaneous protest. At the time, parts of the U.S. intelligence community supported this view, while other parts said it was a terrorist attack. (A third hybrid theory is that terrorists reacted to spontaneous protests in Egypt to launch the attack.)

The president wasn’t having any of it. He said his U.N. representative was clearly operating on the best intelligence at the time and had nothing to do with the underlying situation in Libya. “If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I’m happy to have that discussion with them. But 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 . . . when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”

The president is offended by what he sees as a cheap attack, says one White House official. The president believes that McCain and Graham are making Rice a target because they want to deny the president a nominee. If they have fingers to point, say aides, they should aim them at the intelligence community that gave Rice the initial information. If you were of a mind to read the election results as a signal to Republicans to make the party more inclusive, you might wonder why they are picking a high-profile fight over the potential nomination of an African-American woman to be America’s chief diplomat. If you wanted to read the situation as a pure policy fight, then you might wonder why McCain and Graham are going so hard after Susan Rice when they defended Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, whose reliance on intelligence information in the lead up to the Iraq war was far more damaging.

If Obama was firm, he also seemed reasonable. When he talked about raising revenue to replace the steep tax increases that are scheduled to kick in at the end of the year, he sounded open to Republican ideas, albeit clearly skeptical. He believes that the election showed the country supports his position that taxes should go up for those making more than $250,000. His newfound confidence made him seem comfortable raising the stakes for Republicans. Because, as he explained, if House Republicans don’t agree to his plan, it’s “going to be a pretty rude shock for ⅛the public⅜ and I suspect will have a big impact on the holiday shopping season, which in turn will have an impact on business planning and hiring, and we can go back into a recession.”

For months, Republicans used business confidence against the president, arguing that his policies had frightened consumers and businesses into inactivity. Republicans argued that only removing Obama from office could jump-start the economy again. Columnist Paul Krugman has a special expertise in making fun of this theory. On Wednesday, the president was offering his own version. Five different times he argued that consumers and businesses needed “certainty” that could only be achieved if Republicans supported his measure for protecting tax rates for those who make under $250,000 while allowing rates for the wealthy to rise.

The president says he is open to any solution that would produce the same revenue as a rate increase, but he’s skeptical that one can be found simply by closing loopholes and removing deductions for those in the top tax bracket. That’s the Republican’s preferred position. The president is open to tax reform that would produce some revenue, but the process of enacting such reform will take a long time. Meanwhile, says Obama, let the rates rise. That’s a frightening proposition for Republicans: They obviously don’t want to see the rates rise for fear that they’ll never come back down in the hoped-for tax reform debate next year.

When George W. Bush held his first news conference after election, he remarked on the sense of confidence the time on the stump had given him. “ When you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view,” Bush said. Obama sounded a similar theme, though he explained the relationship between what he saw and what motivates him more explicitly. “When you travel around the country, you are inspired by the grit and resilience and hard work and decency of the American people. And it just makes you want to work harder . . . When you talk to these folks, you say to yourself, man, they deserve a better government than they’ve been getting,” Obama said.

At the end of the press conference, a Bloomberg reporter shouted a question about automatic spending cuts. Obama admitted it was a good question, but he didn’t want to set a precedent by fielding a question that was yelled out. In ways little and small, it was a day for the newly re-elected president to draw some lines in the sand.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.