President Obama today said he has seen "no evidence" that U.S. national security was jeopardized in the unfolding scandal between disgraced former CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
"I have no evidence at this point from what I've seen that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security," Obama told reporters at his first news conference since winning re-election.
Petraeus resigned last week after his affair with Broadwell became exposed. An FBI investigation into Broadwell has determined she was in possession of classified materials at her home and on her personal computer.
Obama, who nominated Petraeus to head the CIA in April 2011, first learned of the intelligence chief's indiscretion one week ago, the day after winning a second term. The two met privately at the White House Nov. 8, when Petraeus offered to resign. Obama accepted the resignation the next day.
The president today hailed Petraeus for an "extraordinary career" and for his leadership as a four-star Army general in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the helm of the CIA.
"From my perspective, at least, he's provided this country an extraordinary service," Obama said. "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."
Asked whether he should have been notified of the investigation into Petraeus' behavior much earlier, Obama said he believed the FBI had acted properly in following established protocols but was withholding final judgment until an investigation is complete.
"I am withholding judgment with respect to how the entire process surrounding General Petraeus came up," Obama said. "We don't have all the information yet.
"One of the challenges here is that we're not supposed to meddle in criminal investigations, and that's been our practice," he added.
Obama was also pressed on growing calls from Republican lawmakers for a "Watergate-style" investigation into the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Benghazi and the administration's response.
"It is important for us to find out exactly what happened in Benghazi," he said, "and I'm happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants."
But Obama dismissed criticism of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who wrongly stated in television interviews in the immediate aftermath of the attack that it was the result of spontaneous protests over an anti-Islam film.
"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," he said. "If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me."
Rice is considered a frontrunner to replace departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, although some Republicans have signaled they would oppose her nomination because of her role in the Benghazi incident.
"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," Obama said.
He "will nominate her" if he decides Rice is the best choice for State, the president said.
Today's news conference -- the 20th of Obama's term -- marked the first time in more than 12 weeks that the president took questions from members of the White House press corps, coming amid swirling questions about Petraeus and looming negotiations to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff."
The series of sweeping tax hikes and deep automatic spending cuts will kick in Jan. 1 unless Obama can reach a deal with congressional Republicans over an approach to reduce the deficit and debt.
"I'm open to compromise and to new ideas," Obama said today of the talks.
"We should not hold the middle class hostage while we debate tax cuts for the wealthy," he said, calling for action on a bill to extend tax rates for families earning $250,000 a year or less. "We should at least do what we agree on."
Obama, who campaigned on preserving Bush-era tax breaks for the middle class, wants to raise $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue in the next decade from higher rates on upper-income earners and corporations. He has pledged to veto any bill that extends current lower rates for the top 2 percent of income earners.
Republicans, meanwhile, have signaled new openness to higher tax revenues through the elimination of some deductions, exemptions and loopholes, but they stand largely opposed to any increases in tax rates. They are also seeking significant overhaul of entitlement programs, seen as untouchable by some Democrats.
"I've got one mandate: I've got a mandate to help middle-class families and families who are working hard to get into the middle class," Obama said.
"I don't presume that because I won an election that everybody suddenly agrees with me on everything. And I'm aware of all the literature about presidential overreach in second term," he said. "But I didn't win election to bask in re-election. I got elected to do work" for the middle class.