WASHINGTON — President Obama, capping the most difficult year of his presidency, came to the White House podium on Friday for his final press conference of the year and openly declared himself ready to put a dismal 2013 behind him.
“I know you are all eager to skip town and spend some time with your families,” he said at the start, before he left for a two-week vacation in Hawaii. “Not surprisingly, I am, too.”
For the next hour, he faced a flurry of questions about the botched rollout of his health care plan, the lost trust from the American public, and his historically low poll numbers.
“Has this been the worst year of your presidency?” came the first question.
A year after winning a second term from an American public who liked him, trusted him, and wanted him to succeed, Obama now faces a struggle in 2014 to get his administration back on track.
He highlighted economic improvements and other positives, but acknowledged on Friday that his biggest regret was the implementation of the health care law, which despite being his signature legislative accomplishment has faced delays and disappointments with a finicky website and changes in some of the plans.
“Obviously we screwed up,” he said. “The first month and a half was lost because of problems with the website and about as bad a bunch of publicity as you could imagine.”
But he tried to draw a distinction, arguing that the problem was not with the law itself, but in how his administration has handled it.
“The basic structure of that law is working, despite all the problems. Despite the website problems, despite the messaging problems, despite all that, it’s working” Obama said. “We’ve got a couple million people who are going to have health insurance just in the first three months. . . . The demand is there and, as I said before, the product is good.”
“When you try to do something this big, affecting this many people, it’s going to be hard,” he added.
He sought to strike an optimistic tone. The title of this press conference could have been: Wait till next year. The economy was showing signs of improving, he pointed out. The health care problems are being taken care of.
“I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” he said. “Let me repeat. 2014 needs to be a year of action,” he added at another moment in the hourlong session. “We’re poised to do really big things,” he promised later.
Obama said he hoped that the recent budget deal would help spur Congress to more bipartisan action.
Obama would not take the bait on the question of whether this was the worst year of his presidency. First, he simply laughed at the idea. Then, he said he doesn’t govern by polls and said the year has to be put into perspective.
“We have had ups and we have had downs,” Obama said. “I think this room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences.”
Outside the White House, that verdict has already been delivered. In the judgment of the Washington Post, he has experienced “the worst year in Washington.” The nonpartisan fact-checking site Politifact gave him the dubious distinction of “Lie of the Year” for promising Americans they could keep their insurance plans if they wanted to. He’s become the butt of jokes about White House bumbling on “Saturday Night Live.”
He blamed much of his poor year on Congress’s unwillingness to go along with his priorities. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not pass his gun control legislation. The Republican-controlled House has yet to take up an immigration overhaul. “If I look at this past year, there are areas where there obviously have been some frustrations, where I wish Congress had moved more aggressively,” he said.
Obama also discussed some of the recommendations he’s received to scale back the collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency. The revelations that the NSA has been collecting vast amounts of information on phone calls and e-mails has triggered a vigorous debate over whether the government has been invading privacy in the name of protecting national security.
“I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” Obama said.
Some aspects of the NSA programs might have to change, he added, if the benefits of the intelligence gathering is outweighed by concerns about potential abuse.
“And if that’s the case,” Obama said, “there may be another way of skinning the cat.” He hinted he might support a plan to have the data remain with telephone companies and allow the government to get it only on a case-by-case basis.
The president said he must do more to restore relationships with international allies, in the wake of disclosures that the United States had been gathering intelligence on other foreign leaders.
He also pleaded with Congress not to try to impose new sanctions on Iran, which could derail a preliminary deal that Secretary of State John Kerry helped orchestrate last month.
“It is my goal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “But I sure would rather do it diplomatically. I’m keeping all options on the table, but if I can do it diplomatically, that’s how we should do it.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.