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, at a far-reaching news conference, 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 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."
Obama sketched out his first 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 that must be resolved by Jan. 1 or the economy could tank. Obama himself used the word "recession."
Despite his hopes for an economic focus, Obama's postelection began with a scandal unfolding on his watch. He said he has seen "no evidence" of any national security breach in the sex scandal that led his CIA director, David Petraeus, to resign in disgrace over an extramarital affair.
The most memorable exchange of the session with reporters involved the U.N. ambassador, Susan 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."
"Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible," Graham shot back.
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 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."
The Libya episode is also entangled with the sudden career fall of the CIA chief at the time, David Petraeus. He resigned last week after disclosing an extramarital affair that had been uncovered during an FBI investigation into another matter. The same scandal has also put a cloud of the Afghan war commander, Gen. John Allen.
Obama said he hoped the scandal would end up being but a "single side-note" in Petraeus' stellar career. He was more measured in his defense of the FBI and in the way he was just notified about the Petraeus investigation last week, saying he was withholding judgment until more facts come.
Between the personnel controversy and the effort to prevent a fiscal crisis on Jan. 1, Obama conceded he had not had much reflection on the campaign.
"I think everybody forgets that the election was only a week ago," he said. "I know I've forgotten."
He said he still plans to reach out to his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, to get ideas on improving the government and the economy. And, yes, he must work better with Congress.
"All of us have responsibilities to see if there are things we can improve on," he said. "I don't exempt myself from needing to, you know, do some self-reflection."
Obama won a second term handily in the electoral college, but about 48 percent of the voting public wanted Republican Mitt Romney in office instead.
"I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms," Obama said.
He said the only mandate he got from voters was simple — "work really hard to help us."
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Julie Pace contributed to this report.