This was a tough year for President Obama. Immigration reform stalled, gun control failed, and the fall was bogged down by the rocky rollout of his signature Affordable Care Act. Still, the commander-in-chief sounded optimistic, using his last press conference of 2013 to pitch the promise of better economic times ahead – though reporters peppered him with questions about his administration’s controversial domestic surveillance program and the announcement of new healthcare exemptions.
Obama acknowledged that there have been “great frustrations” in 2013, but said the New Year would be a “breakthrough year for America”; he called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits, pass comprehensive immigration reform, and raise the minimum wage.
“The bottom line is, 2014 needs to be a year of action,” said Obama. The president’s remarks, hours before he heads to Hawaii for his annual family holiday vacation, come at the end of a year in which his approval ratings declined.
Obama touted that the economy is getting stronger and the unemployment rate is dipping. On healthcare, while acknowledging the rollout of Healthcare.gov should have been smoother, Obama noted that more than half a million Americans have signed up for health care coverage through the federally run marketplaces in the first three weeks of December. That means the total number of enrollees stands around one million.
The president did point to Obamacare when asked what his biggest mistake of the year was. “The fact is it didn’t happen in the first month, the first six weeks, in a way that was acceptable… We screwed it up.”
Obama’s comments about the Affordable Care Act round out a 16-day media blitz to encourage as many Americans as possible to sign up for health insurance. White House officials said they met a self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline to fix the glitch-plagued site. But Republicans have not relented in their crusade to upend the law. And the White House has been making a number of exemptions for those having trouble signing up. Late Thursday, the administration announced it will not impose penalties for a year on Americans whose insurance plans had been cancelled under the new program’s guidelines and cannot find other means of coverage by Jan. 1.
The White House has changed or delayed parts of the ACA at least seven times, and the latest change comes just days ahead of Monday’s deadline for Americans to choose plans for coverage that begins Jan. 1.
Obama insisted the exemptions were “adjustments” but did not change the core philosophy behind the law to make sure more Americans are insured. “When you try to do something that’s this big, that affects this many people, it’s going to be hard,” he said.
On the government’s controversial surveillance program, made public over the summer by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, Obama said he’d make a “definitive statement” on potential reforms sometime in January.
“I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that as technologies change…we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”
A White House review panel released a report this week calling for new limits on National Security Agency’s program.
To make matters worse, The Guardian and The New York Times cited new documents from Snowden on Friday indicating the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, spied on then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, U.N. officials, foreign energy companies and heads of international charities from 2008 to 2011.
Obama also weighed in on his sagging approval ratings. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that just 43% of Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing while 54% disapprove. At the beginning of the year, right after his re-election, the president’s approval rating stood at 52%.
“My polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career. If I was interested in polling, I wouldn’t have run for president,” he said.