President Barack Obama sought to close the books on a rocky 2013 for his administration and set the stage for a "year of action" in 2014.
"I firmly believe 2014 will be a breakthrough year for America," a forward-looking Obama said at a press conference hours before he and the first family were set to fly to Hawaii for their annual holiday vacation.
His approval ratings plumbing all-time depths after a year consumed by congressional gridlock and the troubled launch of the Affordable Care Act, Obama laughed off a question about whether 2013 -- the first year of his second term -- was the worst of his presidency.
"I got to tell you, that's not how I think about it," he said. "My polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career. I mean, if I was interested in polling, I wouldn't have run for president.”
Obama's second term began with grand ambitions to tackle gun control, immigration reform and fiscal agreements. Congress only managed to reach a modest accord on the last of those three issues, and only after a politically bruising government shutdown that extracted a political toll on all of Washington.
The troubled launch of HealthCare.gov and other key components of the president's signature health reform law only worsened Obama's second-term blues.
Asked what his biggest mistake has been over the past year, Obama fingered the rollout of online insurance portal. He put it bluntly: "We screwed it up."
Obama revealed Friday that a half million Americans had enrolled in health insurance plans via federal insurance exchanges in the first half of December, reflecting a dramatic improvement in access to the program’s online portal in the months following its problematic launch. Obama said that since the beginning of October, more than 1 million Americans had enrolled in new plans.
Despite these acknowledged setbacks, the president sought to look forward into 2014 – an election year that will bring a new set of policy challenges for the president and lawmakers to weigh against political concerns.
“I think 2014 needs to be a year of action,” Obama said in expressing his hope that Congress takes up unemployment insurance, immigration reform and a litany of other priorities next year.
One of the top issues with which Obama will wrestle early next year is the list of 46 recommendations for reforms to the National Security Agency and surveillance practices presented to the president on Thursday.
Obama was set to weigh the recommendations – which include proposals to end government storage of phone and electronic “meta-data” and safeguards to protect individual privacy – during his vacation.
“I'm going to make a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January,” he said.
But Obama also said that a series of disclosures about American intelligence practices had demonstrated to him that “this is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust."
That could foreshadow reforms to NSA practices, especially as lawmakers on Capitol Hill raise more pointed questions about the administration’s defense of domestic and international surveillance programs. And on Monday, a federal judge ruled that the bulk collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional, labeling the program “almost-Orwellian technology.”
Obama continues to face a hostile, Republican-dominated House of Representatives and a Senate characterized by partisan acrimony. The GOP has shown no signs of relenting in its criticism of the health care law, only gaining encouragement as the Obama administration tweaks provisions and delays other elements of the law.
But Obama argued those adjustments “don’t go to the core of the law,” and would hardly justify a major delay or repeal of the Affordable Care Act as Republicans have demanded.
Obama also defended his administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, even as hawkish lawmakers threaten to approve new, stricter sanctions against the regime there. The president reiterated that he believes "there is no need" right now for further sanctions on Iran during an interim deal to freeze the regime's nuclear advances.
A bipartisan group of 26 senators has proposed the threat of new sanctions, which Obama has said he would veto if passed. Obama shrugged off that effort, saying that "the politics of trying to look tough on Iran are often good when you’re running for office or if you’re in office."
On another international issue – the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – Obama suggested that his selection of a U.S. delegation inclusive of openly gay and lesbian athletes was intended to deliver a signal to Russia and its harsh, anti-gay laws.
“I think the delegation speaks for itself,” Obama said.
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