President Obama on Friday portrayed 2015 as a banner year for him, touting a rebounding economy, a record low rate of Americans without health insurance, an international climate accord, a nuclear deal with Iran, and a legal breakthrough on gay marriage.
“Over the course of this year, a lot of the decisions that we made early on have paid off,” he said at a news conference in the White House press briefing room. “Since taking this office, I have never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now. And in 2016 I'm going to leave it out all on the field.”
His upbeat mood contrasted with public fears of terrorism and his falling approval ratings in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, as well as polls showing that most Americans feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The 50-minute briefing, his last of the year, started late but ended on schedule—in time for Obama to attend a White House screening of the new Star Wars movie.
The president did skip one simmering issue: gun control. Executive action on some kind on gun control will be announced “in short order,” according to a senior administration official, and it was widely expected that the president would bring up the subject in his last remarks to reporters before leaving for a two-week vacation in Hawaii. En route, he’ll stop in San Bernardino to meet privately with victims of the terrorist attack there this month.
Obama came armed with bragging points: Unemployment is down to 5 percent. The Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health care law, brought the number of uninsured Americans to under 10 percent. The climate accord he helped broker in Paris was hailed as positive step in mitigating the effects of global warming. The deal aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon came together under his leadership. And a Supreme Court ruling made gay marriage the law of the land.
But on the threat of terrorism, just 34 percent of Americans approve of how Obama has tackled protecting the homeland, and the president responded with tough talk.
“We will defeat ISIS,” he said, echoing the forceful line he took in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks last month. “We're going to do so by systematically squeezing them, cutting off their supply lines, cutting off their financing, taking out their leadership, taking out their forces, taking out their infrastructure. We're going to do so in partnership with forces on the ground that sometimes are spotty, sometimes need capacity building, need our assistance, need our training, but we're seeing steady progress in many of these areas. And so they're going to be on the run.”
He also expressed annoyance at critics who mocked him for saying ISIS, also known as ISIL and Islamic State, was “contained” only a day before the terrorists killed 130 people in Paris.
“Now, they are going to continue to be dangerous, so let me just be very clear, because whenever I say that we have made progress in squeezing the territory that they control or made real inroads against them, what people will say is, well, if something happens around the world, then obviously that must not be true,” he said. “But in any battle, in any fight, even as you make progress, there's still dangers involved. And ISIL's capacity both to infiltrate Western countries with people who have traveled to Syria or traveled to Iraq and the savviness of their social media, their ability to recruit disaffected individuals who may be French or British or even U.S. citizens, will continue to make them dangerous for some time. But we will systematically go after them.”
The president thanked Congress “for ending the year on a high note,” praising the budget deal passed Friday that averted a government shutdown. And while he gave credit to House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, he gave himself a pat on the back, too.
“I said early on in this process that I wasn't going to sign a budget that did not relieve sequester, this artificial austerity that was making it difficult to invest in things like education and our military. And I said I would not accept a lot of ideological riders that were attached to a big budget deal. And we met our goals.”
Even on one of his most controversial promises—closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay—he expressed optimism that he could work with Congress to make it happen before he left office.
“I'm not going to automatically assume that Congress says no,” on closing the prison, while acknowledging there would be “significant resistance” on Capitol Hill. His goal for next year is to “chip away” at the Gitmo’s population until it drops below 100. “I think we can make a very strong argument that it doesn't make sense for us to be spending an extra $100 million, $200 million, $300 million, $500 million, $1 billion, to have a—a secure setting for 50, 60, 70 people.”
As for Congress, he said, “every once in a while, they’ll surprise you.”
But if the lawmakers don’t go along with him, he left the door open to using his own authority to keep his campaign promise.
“We will wait until Congress has said definitively ‘no’ to a well-thought-out plan with numbers attached to it, before we say anything definitive about my executive authority here,” he said. “I think it's far preferable if I can get stuff done with Congress.”
Obama struck an optimistic tone about 2016, his final year in office and his last chance to cement his legacy.
“I just want to point out I said at the beginning of this year that interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter,” he said, “and we are only halfway through.”
That optimism may have been prompted by the next item on his schedule.
“OK, everybody,” he said in closing, “I gotta get to Star Wars.”