WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama (pictured) walked a narrow path between ambition and realism, defiance and accommodation when he addressed reporters for the first time since winning a hard-fought election that gives him four more years to carve his place in history.
While he avoided terms like “transformational,” Obama signaled that he still hopes to accomplish big things in spite of Congress’ almost paralyzing partisanship. That could include an overhaul of immigration laws, which could become a coveted bookend to his 2010 health care revision.
There was a bounce in Obama’s step Wednesday in the White House East Room. But there was no dancing in the end zone, no taunting of defeated opponents. He jokingly claimed he forgot about the election the day after it ended, so eager is he to plunge into his second-term agenda.
Obama said he is willing to work with Republicans to head off the worrisome package of big tax hikes and program cuts scheduled to hit in less than seven weeks. But he reiterated that wealthy households must pay higher tax rates, something GOP lawmakers fiercely oppose.
After all, Obama said in tone, if not exactly in words, he defeated Mitt Romney last week running on that platform.
But he stopped short of mimicking past presidents who have claimed wide-ranging mandates. He avoided the newly re-elected George W. Bush‘s 2004 boastful vow to start spending “political capital.” Obama is well aware that Bush quickly suffered a stinging setback when Americans rejected his bid to partly privatize Social Security.
“I’ve got one mandate,” Obama said. “I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that have been working hard to try to get in to the middle class.”
The president, a history student who reportedly ponders where he might rank among presidents, said: “I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms. We are very cautious about that.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election.”
If Obama struck a seemingly conciliatory tone on domestic issues like the “fiscal cliff,” he glared defiantly when he verbally smacked down two Republican critics – including Sen. John McCain, whom he defeated for president in 2008 – on a contentious foreign matter.
“If Sen. McCain and Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama said in his most animated moment.
The two senators have harshly criticized U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for her role in describing the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “To besmirch her reputation is outrageous,” the President said.