Updated at 7:40 p.m. ET
After playing defense for much of 2013 on questions about the rocky Obamacare debut, government surveillance practices, and his stewardship of global crises, a sunnier, feistier President Obama emerged on Friday, using his final news conference of the year to throw a series of counter-punches at critics of his administration.
Mr. Obama’s need to resuscitate his political standing has arguably never been more pressing, as the past year has deeply eroded his standing among the American public. A recent CBS News poll puts the president’s approval rating at just 42 percent – among the lowest marks of his presidency, and a far cry from the 57 percent he enjoyed only a year ago.
The president, who departs later Friday to Hawaii for a Christmas vacation with the first family, emphasized a positive outlook throughout his press conference. He began by touting an economy that’s “stronger than it was when we started the year,” highlighting patterns in job growth and deficit reduction that give him confidence about the future.
“I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” the president said, calling for a “year of action” to continue building on 2013’s economic progress.
He praised the recent budget deal passed by the House and Senate as a “good start,” though he conceded that it’s likely too early to hail the rebirth of bipartisanship.
When he was pressed on his falling approval ratings, the president insisted he wasn’t bothered by poll numbers. “My polls have gone up and down a lot during the course of my career,” he said. “I took this job to deliver for the American people.”
He conceded that 2013 has been a year of “frustrations,” admitting he wished Congress had “moved more aggressively” on his agenda. Still, he argued that real progress has occurred on gun control, immigration, and other policy arenas.
The president said he continues to believe it was a “mistake” for the Senate not to pass a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers, but highlighted gun control efforts at the state level that he said could make a real difference in curbing gun violence.
On immigration reform, the president touted signs of “progress,” highlighting the Senate’s bipartisan vote in June in favor of a comprehensive immigration package. And though the House declined to take up the Senate bill (or any immigration bill) in 2013, Mr. Obama said he was heartened by a “commitment” from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to try and move forward on immigration in 2014.
NSA surveillance reform
The president was pressed aggressively on the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices that have engendered controversy since their disclosure in June by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
Mr. Obama said there was no evidence the programs in question were “abused,” but he added it is “important” to rebuild public confidence in the U.S. intelligence apparatus.
He acknowledged that “whatever benefits” the U.S. might accrue through its aggressive intelligence-gathering might be “outweighed” by public concern about the programs’ encroachment on privacy, and he said the ongoing review of government spying practices will continue.
A panel he convened to examine potential reforms to U.S. surveillance practices did an “excellent job,” the president said.
Mr. Obama was also asked about the possibility that Snowden, who has been charged with espionage in the U.S. and currently resides in Russia, might be granted some form of clemency to incentivize his return.
The president replied that “as important and as necessary” as the debate started by Snowden’s leaks has been, his decision to disclose classified programs had done “unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy.”
“But I will leave it up to the courts and to the attorney general to weigh in publicly on the specifics of Mr. Snowden’s case,” the president added.
Defense of Obamacare implementation
The president also fended off contentions that his administration has hopelessly bungled the rollout of his signature health care law, saying that the early problems with the Obamacare website have largely subsided and that the chaos sown by the structural reform of the insurance industry will soon be smoothed over. He also implied that his critics are exaggerating the scope of Obamacare’s problems to suit their own political ends.
“The health care website problems were a source of great frustration,” he said, but there are a “couple million, maybe more, who are going to have health care on January 1. That is a big deal, and it’s why I ran for this office.”
And when he was asked about other problems with the law’s implementation, including the myriad delays the administration has enacted and the insurance cancellations caused by the law’s regulations, the president insisted the problems “don’t go to the core” of the reform program.
“When you try to do something this big affecting this many people, it’s going to be hard,” he said. “Despite the website problems, despite the messaging problems, it’s working.”
New fights in 2014
The president briefly dove into the politics of the upcoming battle to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, which must occur before February if the nation hopes to avoid a potential default on its debt.
Despite evidence that congressional Republicans are gearing up for a fight, the president reiterated his long-held belief that he will not “negotiate for Congress to pay bills that it has already accrued.”
“I can’t imagine…that folks are thinking actually about plunging us back into the kinds of brinksmanship and governance by crisis that has done us so much harm over the past couple of years,” he said. “I’ve got to assume folks aren’t crazy enough to start that thing all over again.”
He also briefly discussed the tug of war over new sanctions on Iran as negotiations over that country’s nuclear program continue. A raft of senators are pushing for a fresh round of economic sanctions to hold Iran’s feet to the fire, but the president counseled them to wait and see what negotiations produce.
“It’s not going to be hard for us to turn the dials back, strengthen sanctions even further” if talks fail, the president said. “I’ll work with members of Congress to put even more pressure on Iran, but there’s no reason to do it right now.”
The president, who will spend the next two weeks with his family for a Christmas vacation in Hawaii, said he hopes to return to Washington with a rejuvenated sense of inspiration in the new year.
“The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year,” he said. “I’m sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun."