So much for the honeymoon. Just a week after his re-election, President Obama showed only occasional flashes of conciliation Wednesday, with his press conference sounding more like a sequel to the bitter campaign than a fresh start to a second term.
Whatever the topic, he was by turns evasive, strident and pugnacious. No wonder the stock market took another tumble, with the Dow down a staggering 685 points since Nov. 6. His combative attitude suggests Obama wants a fight instead of bipartisan solutions to America’s problems.
He even issued a challenge to a schoolyard brawl over the Benghazi terror attack, blasting Republicans who are critical of his handling of the debacle. He said Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham should lay off UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who peddled a false story that the attack spontaneously grew out of a demonstration.
“If they want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said in obvious anger, adding that Rice was following White House orders. As for the GOP, he added, “They’ve got a problem with me.”
The macho throw-down makes for good theater — Graham quickly responded by saying Obama “failed as commander-in-chief” — but the drama hides the fact that Obama successfully ducked questions about the attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 that killed our ambassador and three other Americans. Asked what order he gave to protect them, Obama treated the question as an insult and danced around it.
He also mostly dodged the spectacular flameout of CIA boss David Petraeus by hiding behind the fig leaf of a continuing investigation. He got away with it, and for that we can blame a press corps that is timid and lacking in basic curiosity.
In fact, let’s stop calling these kabuki performances press conferences. They’re really just presidential speeches with polite interruptions and don’t produce any information the president doesn’t plan to announce.
The key questions on both Benghazi and Petraeus — what did the president know, and when did he know it — have been bandied about endlessly in public.
Yet even though this was reporters’ first chance in eight months to grill Obama, they failed to ask those questions. Nor was any link made to the fact that, even as he was under investigation, Petraeus also spun the demonstration yarn about Benghazi.
Instead, Obama was asked whether “you, as commander in chief, and the American people should have been told that the CIA chief was under investigation before the election?”
The problem with that approach is that it assumes he wasn’t told before the election, which is the White House claim. Yet Attorney General Eric Holder knew in the summer that Petraeus was involved in an affair, and it takes a giant leap of faith to believe Holder never said a word to Obama or anyone else in the White House until Election Day.
The best way to straight answers are straight questions like these: When did you or anyone else in the White House first learn that the FBI was investigating the director of Central Intelligence? And did the timing of Petraeus’ firing have anything to do with his scheduled congressional testimony?
Maybe the answers would be a surprise. At the very least, let Obama say in his own words that he didn’t know until after the election about a probe involving potential breaches of national security and that the timing on forcing Petraeus out was just a coincidence. Then he’ll be on the hook if those answers are proven false.
The one realization of the day is that the president is prepared to hunker down, especially on Benghazi. That he is willing to squander goodwill over it at the start of his new term suggests he knows it was a monumental screw-up and is prepared to hide the facts as long as possible.
That means Congress must get them. So far, there is a bipartisan noise about doing that, but Democrats will probably put party first and surrender. It will be up to Republicans to persist, proving already that voters were wise to elect a divided government and keep the constitutional system of checks and balances vibrant.
This column originally appeared in the New York Post