Obama Holds First Post-Election News Conference

President Obama continues to insist that any agreement to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff next year must include higher taxes on the wealthy. But Obama left the door open to structuring that tax increase in various ways. He's hoping to strike a bargain with congressional Republicans that would prevent a broader tax hike on the middle class that could send the country back into recession.

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President Obama continues to insist that any agreement to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff next year must include higher taxes on the wealthy. In his first White House news conference since winning reelection, though, the president left the door open to structuring that tax increase in various ways. He's hoping to strike a bargain with congressional Republicans that would prevent a broader tax hike on the middle-class that could send the country back into recession.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama is set to meet tomorrow with leaders of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. With the election now behind us, he says, it's time for both parties to set aside their most stubborn talking points and climb down from the fiscal cliff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's only one way to solve these challenges, and that is to do it together.

HORSLEY: The president is not surrendering his own demand, though, that people earning more than a quarter-million dollars a year should pay more in taxes. That was a point he made repeatedly throughout the campaign, and a key difference with his Republican rival Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Every voter out there understood that that was an important debate. And the majority of voters agreed with me. By the way, more voters agreed with me on this issue than voted for me.

HORSLEY: But Mr. Obama told reporters gathered in the White House East Room there are various ways to meet that goal. Asked if he'd insist on higher tax rates - a non-starter for many Republicans - Mr. Obama said he's open to new ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I don't expect the Republicans simply to adopt my budget. That's not realistic. So I recognize that we're going to have to compromise. And as I said on election night, compromise is hard.

HORSLEY: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell also yielded slightly to the election results, hinting he might be open to higher taxes on the rich, if he gets something in return.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Republicans believe there is a way to get additional revenue. We also believe that additional revenue should be tied to the only thing that will save the country in the long run, and that is reforming entitlements.

HORSLEY: But if that sounds like the makings of a grand bargain, there's still plenty of friction between Mr. Obama and his Republican adversaries. It reached a boiling point yesterday on the subject of Libya. Senator Lindsey Graham and others demanded a Watergate-style investigation of the attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Graham is angry that during a round of Sunday talk shows days after that attack, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice failed to label it an act of terrorism.

Graham vowed to block any effort to promote Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I am dead-set on making sure we don't promote anybody that was an essential player in the Benghazi debacle.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has yet to nominate anyone for the top State Department job, but he angrily defended his U.N. ambassador.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: If Senator McCain and Senator 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.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama was also asked yesterday about other priorities for his second term, including immigration reform. He says he expects to introduce a bill soon after the inauguration. And he thinks it will garner more Republican support next year, as the GOP tries to win back votes among the fast-growing Latino population.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Historically, what you have seen is that Latinos vote at lower rates than the broader population, and that's beginning to change. You're starting to see a sense of empowerment and civic participation that I think is going to be powerful and good for the country.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he'll also look for new ways to tackle climate change, though he added a carbon tax is probably not politically possible for now. Mr. Obama acknowledged that despite his reelection, many voters still disagree with him. And he promised to be careful to avoid second-term overreach.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: On the other hand, I didn't get reelected just to bask in reelection. I got elected to do work.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says his only mandate is to help middle class families and those trying to break into the middle class. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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