President Obama will fly to Hawaii for vacation Friday afternoon. But before he skipped town, he took questions from the White House press corps. Here’s what he talked about.
1. NSA reforms
Obama was grilled over the NSA’s bulk data gathering program, which a federal judge ruled this week likely violates the Constitution. The president’s own review board dealt another blow to the program this week, saying that it had little use in foiling terror plots.
The president said he is “evaluating the recommendations that have been made” by the review board, and indicated that changes could come early next year.
"I am going to make a pretty definitive statement on this in January,” he said.
In question is the NSA’s program that collects metadata from Americans’ telephone records. His review board issued 46 recommendations to reform the agency’s surveillance programs, which include requiring that phone companies, and not the federal government, store the records.
Obama said it’s important to track whether a known terrorist is making calls to the U.S. and have effective intelligence gathering operations in place. But he acknowledged there is broad public concern about whether the data collection process could be abused.
“What is absolutely clear to me is that given the public debate that's taken place and the disclosures that have taken place over the last several months that this is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust,” he said.
The president said that his administration’s review of surveillance programs is meant to
“give people more confidence” that the government isn’t “snooping” on them.
Obama also said it’s important to “provide more confidence to the international community” with regard to spying on world leaders.
2. Healthcare: “We screwed up”
ABC News’ Jon Karl asked Obama what was his biggest mistake of 2013. Obama said it was the rollout of his signature healthcare law.
“Since I'm in charge, obviously, we screwed it up,” he said.
Obama said he met once every other week or every three weeks with officials overseeing the rollout. But he admitted he should have been more involved.
Later in the news conference, Obama said that instituting a law as massive as the Affordable Care Act is “going to be hard.” Just last night, the administration announced that people whose insurance plans were canceled under the law were temporarily exempted from the individual mandate to purchase coverage. The latest exemption further enflamed Republicans, who oppose the law.
But Obama reiterated the law is helping millions to get affordable health coverage. He said that over one million Americans have purchased health insurance through state or federal exchanges since Oct. 1. And that 85 percent of the population has benefitted from consumer protections, “whether they know it or not.”
“The basic structure of that law is working, despite all the problems,” he said. “Despite the website problems, despite the messaging problems, despite all that, it's working. And again, you don't have to take my word for it.”
3. Hope for immigration reform
At the beginning of 2013, momentum for immigration reform seemed unstoppable. But now, it’s petered out. That doesn’t seem to have deterred President Obama, however.
He expressed confidence that a bill could reach his desk in 2014, despite the fact many insiders believe the midterm elections could make an immigration push harder. Obama said it was “frustrating” both chambers of Congress this year didn’t pass a bill, which he called “probably the biggest thing that I wanted to get done this year.”
“Even though it did not get completed this year … there is a commitment on the part of this speaker to try to move forward legislation early next year,” he said.
Gridlocked in Congress stalled many of Obama’s domestic priorities in 2013. Aside from immigration, there were new gun-control laws, a grand bargain on fiscal reforms, and an extension of unemployment insurance. Citing the bipartisan budget compromise that passed this week, Obama said next year could be different.
“I think 2014 needs to be a year of action,” he said.
4. Sochi Olympic delegation sends a message
When the White House placed several openly gay athletes in its delegation to the Sochi Olympics, it was a fairly obvious swipe at Russia over its new anti-gay laws.
But during his news conference, Obama tried not to rub it in — at least too much.
“I think the delegation speaks for itself,” Obama said. “You've got outstanding Americans, outstanding athletes, people who will represent us extraordinarily well.”
But Obama did say that the selection of two lesbian women and one gay man should send a strong message about tolerance.
“When it comes to the Olympics and athletic performance we don't make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said. “We judge people on how they perform, both on the court and off the court, on the field and off the field.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.