WASHINGTON — Setting an unflinching tone for his second term, President Barack Obama on Wednesday accused two top Republicans senators of lobbing outrageous criticism at his United Nations ambassador instead of confronting him directly over a deadly attack on Americans in Libya.
"They should go after me," Obama said, referring to Sens. John McCain of Arizona, his 2008 White House rival, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Obama's comments, in his first news conference since winning a second term, underscored how much the Libya attack shadows the president, how strongly U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is being considered for secretary of state and how eager Obama is for some fights even as he talks compromise on others.
For the first time, Obama reflected on the meaning of his re-election victory, offering a more limited reading of his economic mandate from voters.
He sketched out his priorities, most urgently a plea for Congress to join him in preventing a new year's tax increase for families earning under $250,000. That issue is part of a broader set of tax-and-spending decisions — the so-called fiscal cliff — that must be resolved by Jan. 1 or the economy could tank. Obama himself used the word "recession."
He challenged congressional Republicans to let taxes rise on the wealthiest Americans on both economic and political grounds, noting he campaigned successfully for re-election on the point and contending it would instantly ease the threat of the fiscal cliff.
"A modest tax increase on the wealthy is not going to break their backs," Obama said of the nation's top income earners. "They'll still be wealthy."
At the same time, the president stressed he was amenable to compromise on other approaches from Republicans who say they will refuse to raise tax rates. "I believe this is solvable," he said during the news conference.
At a news conference of his own a short while later, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed that a bipartisan "spirit of cooperation" has been evident since the election that augurs well for talks expected to begin Friday at the White House.
However, he said of the president's proposal, "We are not going to hurt our economy and make job creation more difficult, which is exactly what that plan would do."
Obama seemed eager to avoid issuing any ultimatums. Asked if it would be a deal-breaker for Republicans to refuse to allow the top tax rate to revert to 39.6 percent from the current 35 percent, he sidestepped. "I just want to emphasize I am open to new ideas if the Republican counterparts or some Democrats have a great idea for us to raise revenue, maintain progressivity, make sure the middle class isn't getting hit, reduces our deficit."
He promised to begin work on a major immigration bill soon after his January inauguration and said he would at least pursue broader ways to attack the global-warming climate change.
Pressed on challenges abroad, Obama said he was not ready to formally recognize Syria's opposition leadership or arm it. The president also insisted there was still time to peacefully solve a nuclear standoff with Iran, saying he would push again soon for international talks "to get this thing resolved."
The most memorable exchange of the session with reporters involved U.N. Ambassador Rice.
Rarely does such a fight unfold before even an official nomination is made.
Obama's admonishing of McCain and Graham came on a day in which both men had critical words for Rice. To some Republicans, she is the face of the debacle in Libya because of her comments on Sunday talk shows five days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.
"If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," he said. "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. … To besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
Graham shot back: "Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible."
Rice's role is back at the fore because of congressional hearings into the Libya attack and because she is believed to be a front-runner for secretary of state. Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to leave that job soon. McCain has said earlier Wednesday he would seek to block Rice if nominated, and Graham said, "I don't trust her."
Obama said that he if wants to nominate Rice, he will.
On Syria, Obama spoke after France became the first Western nation to recognize the new opposition group as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people. "We're not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile," Obama said. "But we do think that it is a broad-based representative group."
He said he still plans to reach out to his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, to get ideas on improving the government and the economy.
He said the only mandate he got from voters was simple — "work really hard to help us."