Obama Gives Himself a Pat on the Back for 2015

At his year-end press conference, Obama takes an upbeat line despite public fears of terrorism and falling approval ratings

President Obama waves as he leaves following a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing room at the White House on Friday.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Rebecca Nelson
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Rebecca Nelson
Dec. 18, 2015, 4:58 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama on Fri­day por­trayed 2015 as a ban­ner year for him, tout­ing a re­bound­ing eco­nomy, a re­cord low rate of Amer­ic­ans without health in­sur­ance, an in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate ac­cord, a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, and a leg­al break­through on gay mar­riage.

“Over the course of this year, a lot of the de­cisions that we made early on have paid off,” he said at a news con­fer­ence in the White House press brief­ing room. “Since tak­ing this of­fice, I have nev­er been more op­tim­ist­ic about a year ahead than I am right now. And in 2016 I’m go­ing to leave it out all on the field.”

His up­beat mood con­tras­ted with pub­lic fears of ter­ror­ism and his fall­ing ap­prov­al rat­ings in the wake of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Par­is and San Bern­ardino, Cali­for­nia, as well as polls show­ing that most Amer­ic­ans feel the coun­try is headed in the wrong dir­ec­tion.

The 50-minute brief­ing, his last of the year, star­ted late but ended on sched­ule—in time for Obama to at­tend a White House screen­ing of the new Star Wars movie.

The pres­id­ent did skip one sim­mer­ing is­sue: gun con­trol. Ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on some kind on gun con­trol will be an­nounced “in short or­der,” ac­cord­ing to a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, and it was widely ex­pec­ted that the pres­id­ent would bring up the sub­ject in his last re­marks to re­port­ers be­fore leav­ing for a two-week va­ca­tion in Hawaii. En route, he’ll stop in San Bern­ardino to meet privately with vic­tims of the ter­ror­ist at­tack there this month.

Obama came armed with brag­ging points: Un­em­ploy­ment is down to 5 per­cent. The Af­ford­able Care Act, the pres­id­ent’s sig­na­ture health care law, brought the num­ber of un­in­sured Amer­ic­ans to un­der 10 per­cent. The cli­mate ac­cord he helped broker in Par­is was hailed as pos­it­ive step in mit­ig­at­ing the ef­fects of glob­al warm­ing. The deal aimed at pre­vent­ing Ir­an from get­ting a nuc­le­ar weapon came to­geth­er un­der his lead­er­ship. And a  Su­preme Court rul­ing made gay mar­riage the law of the land.

But on the threat of ter­ror­ism, just 34 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans ap­prove of how Obama has tackled pro­tect­ing the home­land, and the pres­id­ent re­spon­ded with tough talk.

“We will de­feat IS­IS,” he said, echo­ing the force­ful line he took in the af­ter­math of the Par­is ter­ror­ist at­tacks last month. “We’re go­ing to do so by sys­tem­at­ic­ally squeez­ing them, cut­ting off their sup­ply lines, cut­ting off their fin­an­cing, tak­ing out their lead­er­ship, tak­ing out their forces, tak­ing out their in­fra­struc­ture. We’re go­ing to do so in part­ner­ship with forces on the ground that some­times are spotty, some­times need ca­pa­city build­ing, need our as­sist­ance, need our train­ing, but we’re see­ing steady pro­gress in many of these areas. And so they’re go­ing to be on the run.”

He also ex­pressed an­noy­ance at crit­ics who mocked him for say­ing IS­IS, also known as ISIL and Is­lam­ic State, was “con­tained” only a day be­fore the ter­ror­ists killed 130 people in Par­is.

“Now, they are go­ing to con­tin­ue to be dan­ger­ous, so let me just be very clear, be­cause whenev­er I say that we have made pro­gress in squeez­ing the ter­rit­ory that they con­trol or made real in­roads against them, what people will say is, well, if something hap­pens around the world, then ob­vi­ously that must not be true,” he said. “But in any battle, in any fight, even as you make pro­gress, there’s still dangers in­volved. And ISIL’s ca­pa­city both to in­filt­rate West­ern coun­tries with people who have traveled to Syr­ia or traveled to Ir­aq and the sav­vi­ness of their so­cial me­dia, their abil­ity to re­cruit dis­af­fected in­di­vidu­als who may be French or Brit­ish or even U.S. cit­izens, will con­tin­ue to make them dan­ger­ous for some time. But we will sys­tem­at­ic­ally go after them.”

The pres­id­ent thanked Con­gress “for end­ing the year on a high note,” prais­ing the budget deal passed Fri­day that aver­ted a gov­ern­ment shut­down. And while he gave cred­it to House speak­ers John Boehner and Paul Ry­an, he gave him­self a pat on the back, too.

“I said early on in this pro­cess that I wasn’t go­ing to sign a budget that did not re­lieve se­quester, this ar­ti­fi­cial aus­ter­ity that was mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to in­vest in things like edu­ca­tion and our mil­it­ary. And I said I would not ac­cept a lot of ideo­lo­gic­al riders that were at­tached to a big budget deal. And we met our goals.”

Even on one of his most con­tro­ver­sial prom­ises—clos­ing the pris­on at Guantanamo Bay—he ex­pressed op­tim­ism that he could work with Con­gress to make it hap­pen be­fore he left of­fice.

“I’m not go­ing to auto­mat­ic­ally as­sume that Con­gress says no,” on clos­ing the pris­on, while ac­know­ledging there would be “sig­ni­fic­ant res­ist­ance” on Cap­it­ol Hill. His goal for next year is to “chip away” at the Gitmo’s pop­u­la­tion un­til it drops be­low 100. “I think we can make a very strong ar­gu­ment that it doesn’t make sense for us to be spend­ing an ex­tra $100 mil­lion, $200 mil­lion, $300 mil­lion, $500 mil­lion, $1 bil­lion, to have a—a se­cure set­ting for 50, 60, 70 people.”

As for Con­gress, he said, “every once in a while, they’ll sur­prise you.”

But if the law­makers don’t go along with him, he left the door open to us­ing his own au­thor­ity to keep his cam­paign prom­ise.

“We will wait un­til Con­gress has said defin­it­ively ‘no’ to a well-thought-out plan with num­bers at­tached to it, be­fore we say any­thing defin­it­ive about my ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity here,” he said. “I think it’s far prefer­able if I can get stuff done with Con­gress.”

Obama struck an op­tim­ist­ic tone about 2016, his fi­nal year in of­fice and his last chance to ce­ment his leg­acy.

“I just want to point out I said at the be­gin­ning of this year that in­ter­est­ing stuff hap­pens in the fourth quarter,” he said, “and we are only halfway through.”

That op­tim­ism may have been promp­ted by the next item on his sched­ule.

“OK, every­body,” he said in clos­ing, “I gotta get to Star Wars.”

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