5 takeaways from Obama’s news conference
By: Jonathan Allen
December 20, 2013 05:13 PM EST
President Barack Obama made a smidgeon of news in his final press conference of the year, but went to great lengths to avoid saying anything that could cause a damper on his Christmas vacation in Hawaii.
Obama said he will “absolutely” keep in place the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that individuals buy insurance, and he addressed a new report on the National Security Agency’s spying for the first time. But he didn’t commit to any changes and wouldn’t give specifics on what to expect in the domestic and foreign policy arenas next year.
But mostly, he stayed on message and sidestepped questions about his job performance and poll numbers.
“If you’re measuring this by polls, my polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career,” he said. “I’ve run my last political race. So at this point, 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.”
Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways from the getaway day news conference:
1) Dodge Dynasty
Obama was repeatedly asked to reconcile the differences between his past statements and his current policy on American spying and the health care law. But he copped to no flip-flop.
NBC’s Chuck Todd asked how Americans could have confidence in the Affordable Care Act when he keeps changing the rules — including issuing a penalty waiver for certain folks who lost their insurance plans and haven’t signed up for new ones by the deadline — Obama framed the decisions as adjustments.
“In a big project like this, that what we are constantly doing is looking — is this working the way it’s supposed to, and if there are adjustments that can be made to smooth out the transition, we should make them,” Obama said.
Asked for his reaction to Politifact awarding him its “lie of the year” for saying that Americans who liked their health insurance plans could keep them, Obama said he’d answered variations of the question before but would take another shot at it.
Spoiler alert: He didn’t address the substance of the “lie of the year” designation at all.
“Bottom line is that, you know, we are going to continue to work every single day to make sure that implementation of the health care law and the website and all elements of it, including the grandfather clause, work better every single day,” he said. “And as I’ve said in previous press conferences — you know, we’re going to make mistakes and we’re going to have problems, but my intentions have been clear throughout, which is, I just want to help as many people as possible feel secure and make sure that they don’t go broke when they get sick. And we’re just going to keep on doing that.”
Obama executed a similar dodge on the NSA, avoiding taking strong positions on the agency’s surveillance activities or the 300-plus page report recommending over three dozen changes to the programs.
2) Blame the GOP
It’s a familiar line for the president — and not without some merit: The biggest reason he had a rough year on the legislative front is that Republicans in Congress have done their level best to block him.
It wasn’t the same show as in October, when the president in the middle of the government shutdown repeatedly hit the GOP. But the message was clear and familiar: My domestic record could look better if not for the House of Representatives.
The House left last week and the Senate on Friday, but they failed to extend unemployment insurance before it expires at the end of the year. Obama’s take: The GOP shouldn’t have waited. “I believe that work should begin with something that Republicans in Congress should have done before leaving town this week, and that’s restoring the temporary insurance that helps folks make ends meet when they are looking for a job,” he said.
On Republicans seeking concessions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling next year, Obama brought up the memories of October’s government shutdown. “I also think that in some ways, given the pattern that we have been going through with House Republicans for a while,’ he said, “we might have needed just a little bit of a bracing sort of recognition that this is not what the American people think is acceptable.”
And, on the lack of progress on an immigration bill, which has stalled in the House. “We can get immigration reform done. We’ve got a concept that has bipartisan support. Let’s see if we can break through the politics on this,” he said, adding that “indications” are Speaker John Boehner may move forward early next year.
3) If you liked 2013, you’ll love 2014
The end-of-year rite of passage was noticeably devoid of new plans for next year. Sure, the holidays are a time for reflection. But the most Obama offered little in the way of fresh thinking beyond his resolution to treat reporters better — which may have a shelf life about as long as the average new year’s diet.
He noted that the war in Afghanistan is slated to end at the conclusion of 2014 but said little of his proposal to raise the minimum wage or the expected shift to the left on the economic policy front.
“When I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is: We’re poised to do really good things,” he said. “The economy is stronger than it has been in a very long time. Our next challenge then is to make sure that everybody benefits from that and not just a few folks.”
4) Ch-ch-changes in the West Wing
The president spent a good bit of December shaking up his staff, with the announcements that Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta would come in for a one-year stint as counselor to the president and Phil Schiliro, the former legislative affairs director, will return to run herd on health care.
But Obama said Friday that he’s probably not done yet.
“I suspect that we may have additional announcements in the new year,” he said. But it’s tough to balance the idea that his administration needs a burst of fresh enthusiasm with the claim that the current squad is operating at full capacity.
“Sometimes you need fresh legs,” Obama said, just before asserting that “the team I have now is tireless.”
5) The president’s mind is already sunning and surfing
Even though Obama said his New Year’s resolution is “to be nicer to the White House press corps,” it was clear from the outset of the hour-long session that he didn’t have much interest in spending an afternoon having to answer reporters’ questions.
“I know that you are all eager to skip town,” he said. “Not surprisingly, I am too.”
Despite a low-heat exchange with FOX News’s Ed Henry, and a glare-down of the New York Times’ Jackie Calmes, Obama declined to bite at questions that might have baited him into more aggressive responses at another press conference. He wasn’t about to let them his already-in-the-islands mood — or create one last bad news cycle before wheels up from Andrews.
“I’m sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple of days of sleep and sun,” he said at one point.