President Obama heads to Hawaii and his long Christmas break on the wings of a press conference that may have been the best of his six-year presidency. In sharp contrast to his last White House press conference immediately after the midterm elections, the president used the session to signal that he has regained his bearings and is both "energized" and "excited" to move into a new year with a new, more Republican order.
Historians may be fascinated by the fact that Friday's session was the first since Woodrow Wilson instituted regular press conferences in 1913 to feature questions from only women reporters. But most Americans entering 2015 with concerns about a dysfunctional Washington likely paid more attention to the signs that their president is not about to mail in the next two years just because Capitol Hill is in hostile hands.
At his Nov. 5 meeting with reporters, Obama was desultory, listless, and seemingly in denial about what had befallen his party after voters found too many Democrats too close to him. It was almost certainly the worst press conference of his time in office. But on Friday, he was, as he described himself, "energized." He was also confident, relaxed, firm and seemed more in control than at almost any earlier session with reporters. He joked about calling on reporters on his "who's been naughty, and who's been nice list." He tweaked Cheryl Bolen of Bloomberg BNA, telling her, "You've been naughty."
He chatted with Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico, wishing her well in her next posting in Brussels, sarcastically observing, "I think there's no doubt that what Belgium needs is a version of Politico." He kidded Lesley Clark of McClatchy for asking multiple questions. For a president known to fume over his press coverage, it was a level of comfort with reporters rarely seen in the last six years.
He even felt comfortable enough to tell an anecdote about his conversation this week with Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel. He said he felt the need to apologize to Castro for taking 15 minutes to deliver his opening statement. But the Cuban leader told him, "Don't worry about it Mr. President. You're still a young man and you have still the chance to break Fidel's record. He once spoke seven hours straight." To laughter, Obama added, "And then President Castro proceeded to deliver his own preliminary remarks that lasted at least twice as long as mine."
More substantively, Obama seemed more realistic than he had been in November about his coming dealings with a Republican-controlled Congress. In November, he drove GOP leaders to distraction by seeming just to repeat his well-known positions and suggesting that he and the Republicans could come together on those. Friday, there was a president more grounded in the battles to come and the need to negotiate where possible. For that shift, he seemed to suggest that a successful lame-duck session of Congress can be credited. That session, unlike the rancorous December gatherings of earlier congresses, featured bipartisan, bicameral compromises and that pleased the president.
But he also made it clear that he is not about to surrender to Republicans on those issues most important to him. And he offered a defense of his tenure that was more coherent and cogent than anything he said before the November election. The dozens of Democratic incumbents who went down to defeat that day could be excused for wondering why Obama had not mounted a similar campaign when it might have bolstered their campaigns.
Even if belated, the president's defense was spirited. He boasted of "the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s," declared the end of the rescue of an auto industry now back on its feet, noted declining gas prices and soaring domestic energy production, cited foreign policy achievements, and hailed the end of the combat phase of the Afghanistan war. His summary was succinct: "more jobs, more people insured, a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy. Take any metric that you want, America's resurgence is real. We are better off."
An avid sports fan, he put his presidency in sports terms. "My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter. And I'm looking forward to it," he said. While his aides are busy trying to cast the soon-to-end year as a success despite the many setbacks, it was in many ways what Britain's Queen Elizabeth once deemed her year—an annus horribilis. No one could have watched Friday's press conference and not believed that the president plans to be more of a player than a passive lame duck in 2015. As he promised the country, "I'm certainly not going to be stopping for a minute."