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After Newtown, a president unleashed

U.S. President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden (L) at his side, speaks to members of the media in the White House Briefing Room
U.S. President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden (L) at his side, speaks to members of the media in the White House Briefing Room

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama came across like a president unleashed on Wednesday as he invoked the Connecticut shooting tragedy not only to address gun violence, but to tell Republicans to "peel off the partisan war paint," accept that he won the election and get on with the job of averting a fiscal calamity.

After Newtown, he suggested, the world looks different to him. Why not to everyone else?

"Goodness," he said, "if this past week has done anything, it should just give us some perspective."

Obama's news conference - on the day he was named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year," - was billed as an announcement of a new drive to tackle the problem of violence. But it ranged over the "fiscal cliff," the National Rifle Association, partisanship in America and the Republican Party's troubles with the conservative Tea Party movement.

While saying he was willing to compromise with Republicans on reaching a deal to avoid a year-end fiscal cliff of economy-shaking tax increases and spending cuts, he offered no concessions of his own even as he scolded them for intransigence.

With Americans' feelings still raw over last week's deadly shooting rampage at a Newtown elementary school, Obama signaled a willingness to take on the nation's powerful gun lobby in a way he had always avoided in his first term.

His stance was much tougher than the more conciliatory approach he took on November 14 at his first news conference after defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

It also appeared to reflect the emerging confidence of a president who, without the need to ever again seek re-election, is now thinking more about his legacy.

Speaking of Republicans still spurning his offers to resolve the standoff over the cliff, he said: "They keep on finding ways to say 'no' as opposed to finding ways to say 'yes.' I don't know how much of that just has to do with (that) it is very hard for them to say 'yes' to me."

He understood, he said, that some Republicans are "more concerned about challenges from a Tea Party candidate or challenges from the right."

But, he added: "If they're not worried about who's winning and who's losing, did they score a point on the president, if they extract that last little concession, did they force him to do something he really doesn't want to do just for the heck of it, and they focus on actually what's good for the country, I actually think we can get this done."

"If you kind of peel off the partisan war paint, then we should be able to get something done," Obama said.

TAKING ON THE GUN LOBBY?

After previously speaking only vaguely on the need to address gun violence, Obama ordered a high-level Cabinet group headed by Vice President Joe Biden to give him concrete policy recommendations within a month and vowed to move swiftly to submit them to Congress.

"This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now," Obama said.

Obama himself has done little to rein in America's gun culture in his four years in office. Gun control has been a low priority for most U.S. politicians due in large part to the clout of the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun industry lobby.

But the Democratic president appears to sense a possible tipping point in Americans' attitude toward guns after the horror of the Newtown killings, and made clear he will put the issue high on his second-term agenda.

Challenged by one reporter to explain "where have you been" on gun control until now, Obama sternly stared down his questioner, saying: "I've been president of the United States dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars. I don't think I've been on vacation."

But he said the Connecticut shooting, just the latest of a string of such incidents on his watch, "should be a wake-up call for all of us."

Whatever steps the Biden group comes up with are likely to face some criticism because many Republicans see the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms as sweeping and sacrosanct.

Obama also did not mince words about the gun lobby, which has often succeeded in blocking gun legislation but this week said it also wanted to help prevent a repeat of Newtown.

"The NRA is an organization who has members who are mothers and fathers, and I would expect that they've been impacted by this, as well. And, hopefully, they'll do some self- reflection," he said.

Touting his approach to the fiscal cliff as the best way to prevent tax hikes on the middle class, Obama also bluntly warned Republicans that he would not negotiate with them over raising the national debt ceiling, which will need to happen in the first few months of next year, as leverage for a fiscal deal.

"The idea that we lurch from crisis to crisis, and every six months, or every nine months that we threaten not to pay our bills on stuff we've already bought, and default and ruin the full faith and credit of the United States of America, that's not how you run a great country," he said.

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Beech)

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