President Obama’s first press conference following his reelection made clear that there is no time for him to savor his solid victory and that he understands this is no time to make exaggerated claims of electoral mandates. Perhaps it is a sign of how fast-moving today’s news cycle is. Or maybe it is a reflection of how many questions demand answers on both the Benghazi attack and the increasingly bizarre David Petraeus scandal. But, as the president quickly learned on Wednesday, those 62.6 million popular votes and 332 electoral votes he received are just so last week.
Since World War II, every reelected president except for Richard Nixon has held a press conference soon after his victory—though Ronald Reagan jokingly wondered why he was doing it, saying, “Look, I won. I don’t have to subject myself to [this].” Some of those were tough sessions, with probing questions about overseas crises and lingering political disputes. But none was as unrelenting as this one by Obama. No reelected president in recent decades faced so many questions with the real potential to put him on the defensive so quickly after the election. It is to the president’s credit that he fended them off so deftly. He was clearly relaxed, almost bounding up to the lectern at the beginning with a jaunty “I hear you have some questions for me.”
But there can be no doubt that there will be no honeymoon for him this time. Not with the government careening toward the fiscal cliff, a restive Congress demanding answers on Libya, too many generals misbehaving and rebels dying in Syria. He spoke of fast-approaching deadlines and international crises and tough personnel decisions to be made and hostile leaders abroad eager to test him. “I didn’t get reelected,” he noted matter-of-factly, “just to bask in reelection.”
Perhaps most striking was the tone that the president struck. Missing was the triumphalism exhibited by some reelected presidents, the claims of big mandates and, as George W. Bush termed it in 2004, “capital” to spend on big initiatives. Instead, Obama contended that his only mandate was to work for the middle class and the only “clear message” from voters in 2012 was that “we’ve got to work together and put our differences aside.” Though he did note, accurately, that he spoke incessantly during the campaign about his insistence on eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. “This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody,” he said. “If there was one thing that everybody understood was a big difference between myself and Mr. Romney,” it was this.
But he did not claim his win as a ratification of how he conducted his first term, particularly in terms of his relations with Congress. “There’s no doubt that I can always do better,” he said, promising to examine the ways he communicates and deals with Congress. “I don’t exempt myself from needing to, you know, do some self-reflection and see if I can improve our working relationship.”
He also seemed to learn another lesson from the campaign and Mitt Romney’s criticism that he had taken his eye off the economy and been distracted by other issues like health care. When asked about climate change, he pledged action—but not yet, not until the economy is improved. “If the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that,” he said.
Even as he was reaching out to his critics and to Republicans in Congress, though, the president did exhibit a touch of steel. His outreach to critics of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was limited to challenging them to stop attacking her. “If Senator [John] McCain and Senator [Lindsey] Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said firmly, mentioning two of Rice’s leading critics. He defended her statements after the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11 as reflecting “the intelligence that had been provided her.” He added, “to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
And even as he talked of better relations with Congress, he left no doubt that he will risk a fight with Senate Republicans if he decides he wants Rice as his next secretary of State. Clearly, he does not expect a honeymoon, and the press conference confirmed that he won’t be getting one.