Obama puts rosy spin on rough year


WASHINGTON — Putting a rosy spin on a difficult year, President Barack Obama acknowledged frustrating “ups and downs” on Friday but exulted that the improving economy is creating new jobs and claimed crucial progress for his troubled health care overhaul. He predicted 2014 would be “a breakthrough year for America.”

In his annual year-end news conference, Obama refused to dwell on his tumbling approval ratings, the disastrous rollout of his signature health care law or the pile of unfinished domestic priorities he leaves behind as he heads for a Christmas holiday in Hawaii. Asked whether this had been the worst year of his presidency so far, he laughed and said, “That’s not how I think about it.”

Yet not all was sunny. He did suggest that, given widespread criticism, he may alter the power of the National Security Agency to collect information on Americans.

And when it came to the start of his health care law, Obama conceded that “we screwed it up,” and said, “I’m going to be making appropriate adjustments once we get through this year.” It was unclear if he meant to signal high-level personnel changes.

Obama does have some reason to be optimistic. He spoke hours after the government announced the economy grew at a solid 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed. And he heralded a modest bipartisan budget deal that cleared Congress this week, saying that while it’s too soon to declare a new era of bipartisanship, Washington is “not condemned to endless gridlock.”

Obama heads to his annual Hawaii vacation armed with dozens of recommendations from a presidential task force on ways to limit the NSA programs. The recommendations were released just days after a federal judge declared the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records unconstitutional, ratcheting up pressure on him to make changes.

The president opened his hourlong news conference with upbeat news on his health care law, announcing that 1 million people have enrolled in federal and state insurance exchanges since Oct. 1. That’s more than two-and-a-half times the number on Nov. 30, when major fixes to the deeply flawed sign-up website were completed.

“The demand is there,” he said. “The product is good.”

Other disputes lie ahead. Obama renewed his long-standing statement that he will not negotiate concessions with Republicans in exchange for legislation that will be needed in late winter or early spring to raise the nation’s debt limit. “It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It’s not leverage. It’s a responsibility of Congress,” he said, although he added he was willing to discuss other issues separately.

On a key foreign policy concern, Obama said it would be wrong to impose new sanctions on Iran at a time when the United States and other nations are testing an interim accord designed to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program. If necessary, “we can pass new sanctions in a day,” he said, referring to lawmakers.

The president also addressed his decision to include openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Russia, which has a national law banning “gay propaganda.” Obama said the delegation, which includes athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, shows the U.S. doesn’t make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Sochi Games are the first since 2000 to which the U.S. is not sending a president, former president, first lady or vice president. That decision has been seen as an indication of Obama’s increasingly tense relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following the news conference, Obama and his family were to depart for Hawaii. It’s the first year that last-minute legislative wrangling has not prevented the president from departing on schedule.

Obama did leave behind a New Year’s resolution before boarding Air Force One.

“My New Year’s resolution is to be nicer to the White House press corps,” he said.

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