President Barack Obama reiterated his demand for tax hikes on the wealthy Wednesday, claimed a mandate to help the middle class, and pushed back strongly against attacks on U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and his handling of the attacks in Benghazi in his first post-election press conference.
“I want a big deal, I want a comprehensive deal,” he said ahead of talks Friday with congressional leaders on resolving the fiscal cliff.
Obama said he is prepared to make tough decisions on entitlement savings alongside new revenue, and is “very eager” to do tax reform that would make the code more efficient.
But he expressed skepticism about GOP proposals to find new revenue without raising the top tax rate from 35 percent.
“It’s very difficult to see how you make up that trillion dollars — if we’re serious about deficit reduction — just by closing loopholes and deductions,” Obama said. “You know, the math tends not to work.”
Still, Obama said that he would be willing to listen to Republican ideas on that count.
“I’m not going to just slam the door in their face,” he said.
He said the only way the fiscal cliff would hit is if Republicans don’t agree to extend tax relief for the middle class. And in the meantime, he said, he was confident a deal could be reached.
“I believe this is solvable. ... I’m confident it can be done,” Obama said, adding that the decisions that need to be made aren’t easy but the math isn’t difficult. “It really is arithmetic,” he said. “It is not calculus.”
But he said that using dynamic scoring or unnamed loophole cuts would not be acceptable ways to generate revenue. Obama said he did not want to be caught in a situation where the wealthy escape paying higher taxes and the middle class one way or another has to make up the difference several months down the line.
Obama also said that his position on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is not new and was repeatedly argued on the campaign trail. “This shouldn’t surprise anybody,” he said. “Every voter out there understood” what his position was, and he cited polls showing that an even greater majority back his position on the tax cuts than voted for him.
“We’ve got a clear majority of the American people,” he said.
He urged House Republicans to “take the edge off” the fiscal cliff by immediately extending Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class by taking up a Senate-passed bill to do just that. He made no mention of the expiring payroll tax cut, but prefaced his remarks that the year-end negotiations should first be about growing the economy.
Obama’s most pointed remarks came on Benghazi, where he ripped into Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for attacking Rice, saying that she had nothing to do with the attacks in Libya and her remarks about the attacks were her understanding of the intelligence she was given.
“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,” he said. “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.”
As for his relationship with the Congress, which has often been criticized by Republicans and occasionally by Democrats as well, Obama said he would take a look at how he’s communicating his desire to work with everybody. “There is no doubt that I can always do better,” he said, adding that he hopes to be a better president in his second term than in his first.
He said he would guard against overreaching in a second term but, at the same time, said he didn’t run for office to bask in the glow of re-election.
Obama reiterated his intention to make immigration one of the first orders of business after Inauguration Day. He said he wanted legislation similar to the last effort attempted years ago, with a pathway to legal status for existing illegal immigrants, strong border controls and penalties for employers who exploit illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants would have to pay back taxes and potentially a fine to qualify, Obama said. And he reiterated his demand for the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrant children who go to college or join the military.
One agenda item that apparently is on the back burner is climate change. Obama said climate change is real and happening faster than predicted, but he talked of having a conversation with the public and with both parties about what they might be prepared to do. He threw cold water on the idea of enacting a carbon tax anytime soon, noting that Congress can’t even agree at this point on cutting middle-class taxes.
More broadly, he said that the public is understandably more focused on the economy, and new policies on climate change would have to meet the test of helping to grow the economy and create jobs.