Obama’s Last Press Conference of the Year Got Feisty

The president touched on everything from the NSA and Obamacare to the Olympics.

National Journal

Pres­id­ent Obama began his year-end press con­fer­ence with a corny joke and a state­ment on the eco­nomy and Obama­care. But the mood quickly shif­ted with the first ques­tion: “Was this the worst year of your pres­id­ency?”

“If I was in­ter­ested in polling I wouldn’t have run for pres­id­ent,” he re­spon­ded, adding that he was polling at 70 per­cent ap­prov­al when he was in the Sen­ate. It would take more than a poin­ted ques­tion to get this pres­id­ent off his pos­it­ive talk­ing points. At this point, Obama said, “my goal every single day is just to make sure that I can look back and say we’re de­liv­er­ing something. Not everything, be­cause this is a long haul.”

The tone of the ques­tions were down­right feisty, press­ing the pres­id­ent on the low­ness of his polling. “My ques­tion is, do you have any per­son­al re­grets?” Ed Henry of Fox News said, for ex­ample.

It didn’t get bright­er from there. “I prob­ably beat my­self up even worse than you or Ed Henry does on any giv­en day,” Obama said in re­sponse to the next ques­tion from ABC’s Jonath­an Karl. But the pres­id­ent won’t ad­mit that he’s done, as the down­ward poll num­bers might im­ply to some pres­id­en­tial crit­ics. There are still three more years, and plus, he’s eager to point out that much of the trouble in gov­ern­ment over the last year stemmed from Con­gress. “You know, I think that hope­fully folks have learned their les­son in terms of brinks­man­ship,” he said.

After a ques­tion on what Obama’s New Year’s res­ol­u­tion is, the press con­fer­ence began to sound something like an in­ter­ven­tion or ther­apy ses­sion. “My New Year’s res­ol­u­tion is to be nicer to the White House press corps,” he said.

The pres­id­ent also re­it­er­ated that “we’re not go­ing to ne­go­ti­ate” over rais­ing the debt ceil­ing, which needs to be raised by early March at the latest.

Ad­dress­ing the week’s NSA news, the pres­id­ent said he’s “go­ing to make a pretty defin­it­ive state­ment about all of this in Janu­ary.” Obama again de­fen­ded the agency’s bulk col­lec­tion, say­ing that “I have con­fid­ence that the NSA is not en­ga­ging in do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance and not snoop­ing around.” But “we have to re­fine this to give people more con­fid­ence.”

Obama did open the door slightly to al­low­ing phone com­pan­ies — and not the gov­ern­ment — to col­lect and store cus­tom­er metadata that can be re­ques­ted on an as-needed basis. But he re­mained res­ol­ute that sec­tion 215 of the Pat­ri­ot Act is be­ing used to cor­rectly jus­ti­fy sur­veil­lance for na­tion­al se­cur­ity pur­poses, and that ad­dress­ing pub­lic con­fid­ence in the NSA’s pro­grams is his top con­cern.

“There have not been ac­tu­al in­stances in which the NSA has ac­ted in­ap­pro­pri­ately in use of this data,” he said. “But,” he said, “people are con­cerned about the pro­spect and pos­sib­il­ity” of that hap­pen­ing.

When pushed on wheth­er he would ever grant NSA leak­er Ed­ward Snowden am­nesty, Obama re­peatedly de­murred, say­ing he would leave the mat­ter to the courts and the at­tor­ney gen­er­al.

Sur­pris­ingly, giv­en everything that happened in the last week, the pres­id­ent did not men­tion the NSA in his open­ing state­ment.

On Obama­care, the pres­id­ent al­lowed he’d made mis­takes when it came to the health care rol­lout. “Even though I was meet­ing every oth­er week, every three weeks with folks and em­phas­iz­ing how im­port­ant it was that con­sumers have a good ex­per­i­ence “¦ the fact is it didn’t hap­pen in the first month, first six weeks in a way that was at all ac­cept­able, and since I’m in charge, ob­vi­ously we screwed it up.”

But he also de­fen­ded his re­cord on health care, say­ing that all told mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, des­pite the prob­lems with the health web­site, are poised to have bet­ter in­sur­ance than ever be­fore. Ul­ti­mately, he said, that’s what mat­ters.

The pres­id­ent also talked about the U.S. del­eg­a­tion to the Winter Olympics in So­chi, Rus­sia. “I think the del­eg­a­tion speaks for it­self,” Obama said. “When it comes to the Olympics and ath­let­ic per­form­ance, we don’t make dis­tinc­tions on the basis of sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.”

But yes, there were also some very corny jokes.

“I know you’re all eager to skip town and spend time with your fam­il­ies,” the pres­id­ent said at the press­er’s open­ing. But, “you know what they say, it’s the most won­der­ful press con­fer­ence of the year.” Obama con­tin­ued, more ser­i­ously, say­ing, “I firmly be­lieve 2014 can be a break­through year for Amer­ica.”

The pres­id­ent’s last press­er was in Novem­ber, pegged to the sloppy Obama­care rol­lout. It got panned by me­dia com­ment­at­ors. The pres­id­ent’s bad luck goes past re­cent ses­sions with re­port­ers; he’s also spent the last week be­ing faced with poll after poll of re­cord-low ap­prov­al rat­ings; was re­cently awar­ded Poli­ti­fact’s “Lie of the Year” for his “if you like your in­sur­ance, you can keep it” sound­bite; and was crowned win­ner of “the Worst Year in Wash­ing­ton” by The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Chris Cil­lizza.

This time last year, the pres­id­ent held a very dif­fer­ent kind of press con­fer­ence. Just a week after the New­town shoot­ing, Obama opened his 2012 year-end press­er with an emo­tion­al state­ment on gun con­trol. “I will use all the powers of this of­fice to help ad­vance ef­forts aimed at pre­vent­ing more tra­gedies like this,” he said then. As it turned out, 2013 didn’t de­liv­er for re­formers.

Obama last held a press con­fer­ence dis­cuss­ing the NSA’s sur­veil­lance activ­it­ies in Au­gust, dur­ing which he said he wanted to “put the whole ele­phant out there” and “ex­am­ine what is work­ing, what’s not, are there ad­di­tion­al pro­tec­tions that can be put in place.” He out­lined four spe­cif­ic steps: work­ing with Con­gress to re­form Sec­tion 215 of the Pat­ri­ot Act, restor­ing pub­lic con­fid­ence in over­sight of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, in­creas­ing trans­par­ency, and form­ing a pres­id­en­tial ad­vis­ory pan­el to re­view the gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing tech­no­lo­gies.

The pan­el’s 300-page re­view was re­leased by the White House earli­er this week and fea­tured 46 re­com­mend­a­tions for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­sider, in­clud­ing end­ing the phone-re­cords col­lec­tion pro­gram as cur­rently prac­ticed and mak­ing the dir­ect­or of the NSA and the chief of the mil­it­ary’s cy­ber­com­mand two dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tions, held by two dif­fer­ent people.