President Obama held a news conference on Friday before departing with his family for a two-week vacation in Hawaii, and Times reporters provided updates and analysis during the event.
Mr. Obama said he expected “more announcements in the new year” about staffing changes in the White House. The president said his current staff was “tireless and shares my values,” but he said many of his aides had made sacrifices for years and might need a break. “Sometimes you need fresh legs,” Mr. Obama said. Asked about a series of staff changes that have already happened, the president noted the importance of hiring John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, as a counselor. “John’s a great strategist, as good as anybody on domestic policy,” Mr. Obama said. “I think he’ll be a huge boost for us and give us more bandwidth.”
— Michael D. Shear
3:24 P.M.Trying to Solve the Iran Issue Diplomatically
Mr. Obama said that in the case of Iran, he was trying to solve the problem diplomatically — perhaps an allusion to avoiding the path that President George W. Bush took with Iraq.
The United States has already achieved the first halt, and a minor rollback, of Iran’s nuclear capability, even though it has only reached a preliminary deal. He repeated that “there is the possibility of a resolution to a problem that has been a challenge to American national security for over a decade now.”
He said the goal was to make sure Iran did not have a program that might be “weaponized.”
“The alternative,” he said, “is possibly us having to engage in some kind of conflict” to solve the problem, with “all its unintended consequences.”
He added, “We lose nothing during this negotiation period.” The United States will have more insight into the Iranian program under the inspection agreements governing the next six months, he said. Without the six-month freeze, “they would be advancing” even further.
He reiterated that there was no need for new sanctions now — but that could change if Iran was unable to reassure the United States that it was not preparing to create a weapon.
“I’m not surprised that there has been some talk from members of Congress” about imposing new sanctions, he said. “We can do that in a day,” if needed, he said. But he argued that it was not needed now, and that sanctions would only make Iran defensive.
He acknowledged that the politics of “trying to look tough on Iran” were good for those running for office. But he is not running, as he noted early in the news conference, and the result was that it was time to see if a negotiated deal was possible.
“Let’s test it,” he said.
— David E. Sanger
3:16 P.M.Obama Says Olympic Delegation ‘Speaks for Itself’
Mr. Obama was diplomatically cagey about whether he was sending a message to President Vladimir V. Putin when he decided to include openly gay athletes in the American delegation to the Sochi Olympics in Russia, where the government has cracked down on gay rights by banning so-called gay propaganda.
The president said the delegation to the Olympic games in Russia “speaks for itself,” and said the fact that several of the athletes are gay should send a message about American values.
“We judge people on how they perform, both on the court and off the court, on the field and off the field,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s a value that I think is at the heart of not just America but American sports.”
— David E. Sanger and Michael D. Shear
3:09 P.M.Obama Says Snowden Leaks Were ‘Damaging’
Mr. Obama ducked a question about whether Mr. Snowden should be given some form of plea bargain or amnesty in order to return him to the United States to learn about the breadth of the documents he stole. Mr. Obama said it was an issue for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and the president sounded deeply skeptical that any such arrangement should be made.
Mr. Obama said the disclosures were “damaging” to American intelligence efforts, and said there should have been another way to air the issue of the proper limits on the N.S.A. (He never said how the public would have known about the programs that his panel of advisers now say should be reconfigured.)
And Mr. Obama suggested the focus should not be on the United States, but on other nations. He did not mention China, Iran or Russia, but clearly he was thinking about them.
“We have countries that actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he is worried about,” such as targeting dissidents and the news media, “who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and say that it is the United States” that is the problem.
“As important and necessary as this debate has been,” he said, the disclosures have “done unnecessary damage” to American intelligence operations and diplomacy.
— David E. Sanger
3:03 P.M.Obama Says He Will Not Negotiate on Debt Ceiling
Mr. Obama declared — again — that he would not negotiate with Republicans about whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and said he could not imagine that his adversaries would consider the possibility of another shutdown.
But the president said he thought that the weeks-long government shutdown this year might have been helpful in showing politicians how angry the public is.
“In some ways,” he said, “we might have needed just a little bit of a bracing, sort of recognition that this is not what the American people think is acceptable.”
— Michael D. Shear
2:56 P.M.Obama Says Health Care Rollout Was Biggest Mistake
Mr. Obama said the troubled health care rollout was the biggest mistake he made in 2013, saying that his meetings on the subject every two or three weeks were not enough.
“Since I’m in charge, obviously we screwed it up,” the president said.
He gave no indication of whether he still intended to fire people for those problems, though he said he would “be making appropriate adjustments once we get through this year.”
Reflecting on a question from Jon Karl of ABC News about his biggest mistake, Mr. Obama said that “I promise you, I probably beat myself up even worse than you or Ed Henry does on any given day.”
But he repeatedly said that “when I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is, we are poised to do really good things.”
— Michael D. Shear
2:53 P.M.Obama Wants to Alleviate Fears About the N.S.A.
For the first time, Mr. Obama said that overhauling the N.S.A. was partly about evaluating its programs, but also partly about responding to America’s fears about what the agency might be doing — even if those fears were, he said, not fully founded.
Mr. Obama was reminded by Ed Henry, a reporter for Fox News, that back in June, when the leaks from Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, began, Mr. Obama had argued that the United States already had “the right balance” on surveillance.
Mr. Obama said that these were “judgments we are making every day,” suggesting that the balance was not a static issue. He said his assessment of the surveillance program had not changed, but rather that “this is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust.” He said the disclosures happened “in dribs and drabs,” and because the United States was slow to declassify and explain programs, trust “has been diminished.”
“It is possible, for example, that some of the same information that the intelligence community feels is necessary to keep people safe” could be accomplished by having telephone companies keep the data, or creating a consortium. He acknowledged that creating such a system could be more expensive.
Of the N.S.A.’s programs, Mr. Obama said, “We need this intelligence; we can’t unilaterally disarm.” He talked of finding a middle ground, evaluating programs and changing them to allay public fears.
— David E. Sanger
2:45 P.M.Obama Evaluating Recommendations on N.S.A. Surveillance
President Obama was asked about the complaint of a federal judge, echoed in a report by five expert advisers, that the bulk collection of telephone data had yielded little or no success in detecting imminent acts of terrorism. He answered by thanking the advisory committee, but added that “what we are doing now is evaluating all the recommendations that were made.” He said he would spend the next few weeks evaluating what he had heard. “I’ll make a pretty definitive statement” in January, Mr. Obama said, adding, “I’m taking this pretty seriously.”
He talked specifically about the “metadata” program to collect the records of all phone calls made around the country. He noted that the N.S.A. concluded it “was pretty important to track” any call that came into the United States from a known terrorist, and added that “it’s important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done,” there was no evidence of inappropriate action by the N.S.A.
But he said it was clear that American citizens were concerned. “The question we are going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goal” in different ways “that give the public more confidence” that the N.S.A. is not “snooping around.”
“We have to provide more confidence to the international community,” he said, noting that there are already a lot of checks and balances to make sure that the N.S.A. is not spying on Americans. “We have had less legal constraint” on international action.
“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should,” he said, repeating a line he has used many times before.
— David E. Sanger
2:37 P.M.Obama Offers Scaled-Back Ambition for Rest of Term
President Obama seemed to offer a scaled-back sense of ambition for the remainder of his presidency, saying that he wanted to make sure that he continues to make a difference, big and small, in people’s lives.
“At this point, my goal every single day,” he said, is to make sure that “we’re delivering something. Not everything, because this is a long haul.”
Asked whether 2013 had been his worst year in office, Mr. Obama said he did not see it that way. But he conceded that Congress had done little to help advance his agenda.
He said that in the years ahead, he would try to make sure that families felt greater opportunity, that the country’s finances continued to stabilize, that the housing market continued to improve, and that wages were “inching up” a bit.
“If those things are happening, I’ll take it,” Mr. Obama said.
— Michael D. Shear
2:32 P.M.Obama Cites Strong Economy and Pledges Broader Recovery
President Obama hailed the growing strength of the economy at an end-of-the-year news conference on Friday, but pledged to use 2014 to broaden the recovery to more of America’s citizens.
“We head into next year with an economy that is stronger than it was when we started the year,” Mr. Obama said. “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”
Mr. Obama said that despite problems with HealthCare.gov, more than one million people had signed up for new health care insurance in the last several months. And he said that the economy grew last summer at the fastest pace in two years.
The president said he did not view 2013 as the worst year in his presidency and expressed optimism that more could be done, despite the failure of Congress to pass more of his agenda. He noted the recent budget deal as evidence that cooperation could improve.
“It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship, but it’s also fair to say that we are not condemned to endless gridlock,” Mr. Obama said. “2014 needs to be a year of action.”
— Michael D. Shear
2:07 P.M.President Likely to Address N.S.A. Recommendations
President Obama is certain to address recommendations released this week by his five-member advisory panel for curbing the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to balance security concerns with privacy rights, as well as his administration’s decision to allow people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies to buy catastrophic coverage and be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year.
The week’s developments on surveillance and the Affordable Care Act, along with Congress’s passage of a bipartisan budget that, while modest, averts the threat of another government shutdown, punctuated a frustrating year for the president, which was dominated by those three issues.
The president ends his fifth year in office – typically the best opportunity a second-term president has to achieve something – with his approval ratings at a record low, many liberals disillusioned and allies abroad angered by the disclosures of phone surveillance of their citizens and leaders.
Mr. Obama is also expected to hear questions on his administration’s effort to get Syria to destroy its chemical weapons and Iran to end its nuclear program. And despite the budget deal, which is far less than the grand bargain on deficit-reduction and public investments that Mr. Obama wanted from the year, the president could address a separate looming fiscal deadline: the need for Congress to increase the nation’s borrowing limit by March.
In a statement early Friday, Mr. Obama directed his military advisers to continue working to prevent sexual assault within the services, support victims and prosecute perpetrators, a subject of much recent Senate debate. He said that the Pentagon should report to him in a year, by Dec. 1, and added, “If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks.”
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