JUDY WOODRUFF: The president faced the White House press corps today in a wide-ranging session. He addressed two major stories, the fiscal cliff and the sex scandal that ousted the CIA director, plus immigration, climate change and more.
NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has the story.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Please have a seat.
I hear you have some questions for me.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president went right to the point in his first news conference since winning reelection eight days ago, topping the list, the looming fiscal cliff, $650 billion in spending cuts and tax increases kicking in at the 1st of the year.
BARACK OBAMA: If Congress fails to act by the end of this year, everybody's taxes will automatically go up, including the 98 percent of Americans who make less than $250,000 a year, and the 97 percent of small businesses who earn less than $250,000 a year. That doesn't make sense. Our economy can't afford that right now. Certainly, no middle-class family can afford that right now.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama signed legislation extending the Bush-era tax cuts two years ago, including those affecting the wealthy, but he said today things are different this time.
BARACK OBAMA: Well, two years ago, the economy was in a different situation.
We were still very much in the early parts of recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But what I said at the time is what I meant, which is this was a one-time proposition. And, you know, what I had told leaders privately as well as publicly, is that we cannot afford to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
What we can do is make sure that middle-class taxes don't go up.
I have got one mandate: I have got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that have been working hard to try to get into the middle class. That's my mandate. That's what the American people said. They said, Work really hard to help us. That's my mandate.
I don't presume that because I won an election that everybody suddenly agrees with me on everything.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the president directly challenged Republicans to drop the tax breaks for the better-off.
BARACK OBAMA: A modest tax increase on the wealthy is not going to break their backs. They'll still be wealthy. And it will not impinge on business investment.
But, what I will not do is to have a process that is vague, that says we're going to sort of, kind of raise revenue through dynamic scoring or closing loopholes that have not been identified.
And the reason I won't do that, is because I don't want to find ourselves in the position, six months from now or a year from now, where lo and behold, the only way to close the deficit is to sock it to middle-class families.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, Mr. Obama stopped short of saying flatly that it's a deal breaker if Republicans insist on keeping tax rates for the rich where they are now.
BARACK OBAMA: I'm less concerned about red lines, per se. What I'm concerned about is not finding ourselves in a situation where the wealthy aren't paying more or aren't paying as much as they should, middle-class families one way or another are making up the difference.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama also faced questions on the other major story in Washington right now, the extramarital affair that ended David Petraeus' career as CIA director. Today, he said he's seen no evidence that national security was compromised.
BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, there's an ongoing investigation. I don't want to comment on the specifics of the investigation.
The FBI has its own protocols in terms of how they proceed. We are safer because of the work that Dave Petraeus has done. And my main hope right now is that he and his family are able to move on and that this ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president was pressed on whether he should have been informed sooner of the FBI's investigation. He said he was withholding judgment.
BARACK OBAMA: I think you're going to have to talk to the FBI in terms of what their general protocols are when it comes to what started off as a potential criminal investigation. You know, one of the challenges here is, is that we're not supposed to meddle in, you know, criminal investigations, and that's been our practice.
And so my expectation is that they followed protocols that they already established.
What I will say is that if -- it is also possible that had we been told, then you'd be sitting here asking a question about why were you interfering in a criminal investigation? So, you know, I -- I think it is best right now for us to just see how this whole process unfolded.
KWAME HOLMAN: Also on reporters' agenda today, harsh criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. They strongly criticized her for saying the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had been a spontaneous outburst of Muslim anger, when officials already knew it was a terrorist attack. And they insisted they'd oppose having her replace Hillary Clinton, who's expected to step down as secretary of state.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration, and she's the point person, is so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her. And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better. And if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America.
KWAME HOLMAN: In response, the president was vehement in his defense of Ambassador Rice.
BARACK OBAMA: Let me say specifically about Susan Rice, she has done exemplary work. She has represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill, and professionalism, and toughness, and grace.
As I have said before, she made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her.
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.
KWAME HOLMAN: Back on domestic issues, President Obama pledged quick action in a second term on comprehensive immigration reform. He used a question from the correspondent for Telemundo to point to his strong support from Latinos in the election.
BARACK OBAMA: This is the fastest-growing group in the country and, you know, historically what you've seen is Latino vote -- 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. And it is why I'm very confident that we can get immigration reform done. And my expectation is, is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration.
KWAME HOLMAN: The immigration issue saw little action during Mr. Obama's first term, as did climate change. Today, the president said he'd work with Congress on that issue as well. And he said again he wants to meet with the man he defeated last week.
BARACK OBAMA: I'm sure that Governor Romney is spending some time with his family.
And my hope is before the end of the year, though, that we have a chance to sit down and talk. You know, there -- there are certain aspects of Governor Romney's record and his ideas that I think could be very helpful. And, well, to give you one example, I do think he did a terrific job running the Olympics.
KWAME HOLMAN: No word on when such a meeting could take place.
GWEN IFILL: In case you missed it, you can watch the complete news conference on our website.