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Obama vigorously defends UN envoy Rice, calling criticisms 'outrageous'

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But Obama, asked if criticisms of Rice would influence any plan he has for her, called it “outrageous” that political leaders are trying to “besmirch” her reputation. He advised critics of the administration’s actions on Benghazi who are going after Rice “because she’s an easy target” to instead go after the top.

“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama said, in remarks that were the most passionate of a press conference that otherwise focused largely on the president’s proposals for avoiding the looming “fiscal cliff.”

Obama said Rice has done “exemplary work” at the UN, adding that she has represented US interests with “skill, professionalism, toughness, and grace.” At the same time, Obama said he has not made any decisions about the slots to be filled on his foreign policy and national security team.

In addition to finding a new secretary of State, Obama now must also name a CIA director to replace David Petraeus, who resigned last Friday amid a scandal over an extramarital affair. Speculation is growing that Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, may also want to move on, and that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is likely to want to leave his post at least by sometime next year.

All of these changes provide Obama with the opportunity to refashion his foreign policy and national security team for a second term. It’s in this context, and given the strong rumors of Obama’s intentions for Rice, that McCain and Graham and other Republicans are voicing their opposition to her becoming secretary of State.

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