Obama on defense: Press conference focuses on a rocky year

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President Barack Obama undertook a long, year-end press conference last Friday tackling a number of hostile questions prior to departing on vacation in Hawaii with his family.

Mr. Obama was able to meet the White House press corps against a background that included, first, recent congressional agreement on compromise two-year budgets; second, gradual smoothing out of the rocky rollout of his Affordable Care Act; and, third, unexpected U.S. economic growth. Gross domestic product grew in the most recent quarter at a robust yearly rate exceeding a healthy 4 percent.

Some of the media nonetheless posed questions that were less than festive. Was this the worst year of his presidency? What was the biggest mistake he had made?

Mr. Obama found himself playing defense primarily on the semi-disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. He defended it vigorously, showing appropriately detailed knowledge of what is going on across the country. His position is that the act’s basic structure is essentially working in spite of the problems. More people who need affordable health care are getting it, and the almost inevitably difficult running-in period is being worked through. Americans who recall the early days of Social Security and Medicare do not find the act’s early difficulties strange.

The other area where Mr. Obama faced hostile questions was the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency. He defended the metadata program, arguing that the United States needs the intelligence it acquires. He indicated that he understands fully the need to balance Americans’ civil liberties, privacy and values against security and safety. At the same time, he did not respond to a suggestion that he should fire Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to Congress, or offer an amnesty or plea bargain to leaker Edward Snowden, holed up in Russia.

Mr. Obama made clear that he has goals he wants to achieve in the remaining three years of his presidency that he will pursue vigorously in the new year after a break for sun and sea in home-base Hawaii. Primary among these, based on his emphases in the press conference, will be immigration reform. Just as his critics see the Affordable Care Act problems as his Achilles’ heel, he sees the Republicans’ vulnerable position on immigration reform as theirs and intends to push the issue. He sees it as important to the country as well as a Republican weak point.

He has also not forgotten gun control, referring again poignantly to the Newtown school massacre. He expressed the strong wish that Congress would not make the debt ceiling question, due to loom again in the spring, a potential government-closing issue. He sees tax reform as still alive. He doesn’t see either his non-attendance or the composition of the official U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Russia as a major issue. He urged Congress not to impose new economic sanctions on Iran while negotiations on the future of its nuclear program proceed, referring pointedly to Americans’ desire to see no new wars at this time.

Although the president was at times a little petulant in his responses to some of the reporters’ questions, Mr. Obama in general showed himself to be very much alive in what he will seek to do during the next few years of his presidency, after a much-needed break.

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