As President Obama prepared for his first full news conference in eight months on Wednesday amid burgeoning scandals over the terrorist assault in Benghazi, Libya, and the CIA director’s resignation, spokesman Jay Carney said the White House can juggle those questions and still pursue a broad second-term agenda.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attack is certain to play a major role at Wednesday’s news conference, with the death of four Americans, including that of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, drawing ever-closer scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Now the White House is also grappling with questions about retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director last week after admitting to an extramarital affair.
Mr. Carney said Tuesday the president was "certainly surprised" to learn about Mr. Petraeus' downfall, but he insisted it would not distract from pressing postelection matters in Washington — a line Mr. Obama will likely emphasize Wednesday.
After shifting the narrative and deflecting for nearly two months on Benghazi and now with Mr. Petraeus' ill-timed departure, the White House can expect some of the sharpest questions to focus on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate and what the Pentagon and the CIA knew and when they knew it.
Reporters have also asked Mr. Carney for a timeline of what the president and his top advisers knew — a plea they will likely take straight to Mr. Obama on Wednesday.
More than a half-dozen committees on Capitol Hill have initiated investigations into the Sept. 11 attack, and one of those, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a closed-door briefing Tuesday afternoon.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, emerged from the briefing to say there are still many unanswered questions.
"No. 1 is, what assumptions were made early on about the safety of the operations there?" he said. "No. 2 is whether that same analysis is being done now with other diplomatic missions around the world in terms of ensuring the safety of our personnel. Of course, the third question is what led them to conclude in the early days to send [U.N.] Ambassador [Susan] Rice out to say that this was the result of a spontaneous protest that was caused by a YouTube video, as opposed to an organized and orchestrated terrorist attack. So those are questions that need to be answered."
Some news reports say Mr. Obama could send Ms. Rice to the State Department to take over from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she wants to leave the post.
Mr. Carney refused to speculate about Cabinet reshuffling or personnel changes, but defended Ms. Rice's record, and said the entire administration has been as transparent as possible in giving out information on Benghazi.
The initial information that administration officials provided, Mr. Carney said, was "based on available assessments at the time."
"As those assessments evolved and became more detailed and clear, we provided additional information," he said.
Some in Congress have called for a single select committee to conduct a unified investigation, but Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, knocked that idea down.
"I don't think we need a select committee," he said. "There's enough investigations going on right now, including this afternoon."
In his news conference, Mr. Obama will likely face questions over his domestic agenda as well, including how he would strike a compromise to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff." Mr. Obama's top supporters, Democrats on Capitol Hill, and even some prominent Republicans say the president now has far more leverage to push his agenda of increasing taxes on high earners as a way to address the impending crisis.
Mr. Obama himself has yet to claim an election mandate to raise taxes on high-income earners.
Overall, he has taken a more low-key approach postelection than his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, who followed up his re-election in 2004 with a news conference and a Cabinet meeting two days later, laying out a full agenda for his second term and claiming he earned the political capital to see it through.
But many of Mr. Bush's goals for his second term, such as overhauling Social Security and comprehensive immigration reform, didn’t pan out, and Mr. Obama and his top aides appear leery of claiming the upper hand.
The president met Tuesday with liberal advocates to talk about his agenda, and has a Friday meeting scheduled with congressional leaders to begin talking about the fiscal cliff.
• David Sherfinski contributed to this article.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
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