First thoughts on President Obama’s press conference

November 14, 2012

President Obama conducted his first news conference since August moments ago and we jotted down a few thoughts coming out of it.

You can read the transcript of the questions (and answers) here. What did you notice?

* Obama reaches out....: In his opening remarks, President Obama read from a letter he had received over the weekend from a man in Tennessee who wrote that while he hadn't voted for the incumbent he was now behind him for the good of the country.  At several other times during the press conference, Obama pointed out that he had to look out for the people who had not voted for him as well as those who had -- especially since he won't ever stand for election again.

* ....but not to Congressional Republicans: While Obama had kind words for the regular folks who hadn't voted for him, he was much more aggressive and pointed toward Republican members of Congress.   He repeatedly placed the ball in their court when it came to the question of raising revenue from the wealthiest Americans, for example. But  Obama saved the majority of his indignation for Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) who had criticized U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.  He accused the two senators of "besmirching" her good name and called their conduct "outrageous". While the president made clear he had made no decision about whether or not to nominate Rice as the next secretary of state, his heated defense of her seemed to send that signal loud and clear.

* Elections have consequences: Obama didn't quite say "I won, you lost" to Republicans, but he made pretty darn clear the message he believed the voting public sent last Tuesday. "The American people understood what they were getting," Obama said at one point. While Obama dodged the direct question of whether he had a political mandate -- "I've got a mandate to help middle-class families," he said -- it was clear from his tone, his body language and his repeated references to last week's election that he believes he does with every fiber of his being.

* The choice is clear: Obama -- from his opening statement onwards -- made sure to set the choice (as he sees it) on the fiscal cliff debate. Behind curtain number one is no deal, which would mean a tax increase for almost everyone on Jan 1. Behind curtain number two is some sort of compromise in which Republicans give on drawing more revenue from the wealthiest Americans -- a compromise that almost certainly can't be composed simply of closing loopholes and capping deductions. (Sidebar: "Let's Make a Deal" was an awesome game show.)  While Republicans will surely reject that frame, Obama's ability to drive that message dynamic is significant -- particularly so soon after his reelection victory.

* Treading carefully on Petraeus: The president was very prepared for the questions about the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus after the general acknowledged an extramarital affair. Obama chose his words carefully and made sure to emphasize that he was withholding judgment until a fuller picture of the situation emerged. (One example of Obama's caution: "I have no evidence ... that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.") Taken as a whole, Obama was able to keep the Petraeus matter on the backburner -- there were two (out of 10 total) questions directly related to it -- and, in so doing, virtually ensured that his tough talk on Susan Rice and the fiscal cliff will be the takeaways from the press conference.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House for the newspaper and Web site.
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Chris Cillizza | November 14, 2012