Obama Counters an Agitated Press Corps With Optimism

In his year-end news conference, the president deflected reporters stung by the NSA scandal and focused on his hopes for 2014 as ‘a year of action’ for the White House and Congress.

Larry Downing/Reuters

A tired but resolutely optimistic President Obama took questions Thursday from a press corps determined to hold him accountable for a year that ends with few legislative achievements and the lowest poll ratings of his almost five years in office. Obama was equally determined to head them off with an opening statement that touted a strengthening economy and more than 2 million Americans poised to gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“I firmly believe 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” he declared, citing the two-year budget compromise that sailed through Congress as evidence that the political process is not condemned to endless gridlock. With immigration reform teed up in the House, “2014 needs to be a year of action,” he said.

When the first questioner, Julie Pace of AP, asked if this was “the worst year of your presidency, “ Obama laughed, pointing out that “this room has recorded at least 15 near-death experiences” if you count his two-year campaign for the presidency, along with his time in office. He acknowledged frustrations like Congress not passing background checks for gun buyers, but then ticked off smaller positive programs that don’t get headlines, such as expanding wireless capacity to classrooms, and a manufacturing hub in Youngstown, Ohio.

The fact that immigration reform is taking longer than he’d like is “not something I end up brooding about.”

The reporter pressed, citing recent polls and asking if he understands that the public has lost trust and confidence in him. “If I were interested in polling, I wouldn’t have run for president,” he said, pointing out that he was at 70 percent when he was in the Senate. What matters to him, he said, is that a couple of million people, maybe more, are going to have health care on January 1st “and that’s a big deal.”

The other contentious issue dogging Obama is the controversy over National Security Agency surveillance, and Fox News reporter Ed Henry tied it together with the loss of trust and credibility that has driven down Obama’s poll numbers. “Hold on a second,” Obama interjected when Henry suggested he might not have been “fully read in” six months ago when he said the administration had struck the right balance between intelligence gathering and privacy concerns. Obama said he stood by what he said in the past, but that in the aftermath of the various disclosures, and the concerns people have about potential abuse, “there may be other ways of skinning the cat.” He said one possible fix is to have the private phone companies keep the records rather than the government.

Asked his biggest mistake, like most presidents, he appeared stumped, then retreated into what is by now an old standby: the health-care rollout. He said there weren’t clear enough lines of authority and nobody cracking the whip on contractors. He promised “appropriate adjustments” next year. “Not that I don’t engage in self-reflection,” he said, “I’ve probably beaten myself up more than you [CBS News correspondent Major Garrett] or Ed Henry does on any given day.”

Obama came into the pressroom for this year-end conference not to dwell on past mistakes but to see if he can’t turn the dial in a more positive direction for the coming year, building on the small glimmer of daylight on Capitol Hill and capitalizing on an economic recovery that finally seems to be gaining traction. “The end of the year is always a good time to reflect, to see what we can do better,” he said, noting with a wry smile, “I’ll have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.”

The first family will be in Hawaii for the holidays, time for a much-needed break and to reshape, if not shake up, his White House staff. He said he had lunch with Pete Rouse, a longtime aide who came with him from the Senate. “He’s leaving me and that’s tough—I love that guy,” Obama said. New people will be joining his team, among them John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, who Obama said will provide “more bandwidth” to an administration with big dreams and goals but precious little maneuvering room in divided government.