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And President Obama will sleep in Honolulu tonight. His family is spending Christmas and New Year's there. But before the president took off for warmer shores, he had this business to tend to: the year-end press conference in the White House briefing room, where rows of reporters were bristling with questions about health care and the NSA. NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There are many faces to President Obama. This was the face of a man who has been through a long, rough year and can see the palm trees at the end of the tunnel. He was calm and loose and ready to crack jokes, including a few digs at reporters and some Christmas one-liners.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know you are all eager to skip town and spend some time with your families. Not surprisingly, I am too. But you know what they say, it's the most wonderful press conference of the year.
SHAPIRO: You might not expect Obama to be quite so jolly after the year he's had. His domestic initiatives have floundered. Relations with foreign allies have suffered. His poll numbers are among the lowest of his presidency and, of course, the health care website's roll out was a disaster. But the president described the year a bit differently. In his eyes, it was a year of accomplishments.
OBAMA: We head into next year with an economy that's stronger than it was when we started the year. More Americans are finding work and experiencing the pride of a paycheck. Our businesses are positioned for new growth and new jobs. And I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.
SHAPIRO: Yes. But about 2013, the questioner asked whether it was the worst year of Obama's presidency. He replied, that's not how I think about it.
OBAMA: We have had ups and we have had downs. I think this room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences.
SHAPIRO: Then he went on to acknowledge some real frustrations, like the failure of a gun bill in the Senate and immigration stalling out in the House. Obama said NSA leaker Edward Snowden did unnecessary damage by revealing some of the country's most secret surveillance programs.
This week, a presidential panel recommended some major changes to those programs. Today, the president would not say which of the recommendations he intends to accept. He did acknowledge that he needs to address the public's skepticism.
OBAMA: The question we're going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that, in fact, the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing?
SHAPIRO: When asked about regrets over the last year, Obama said he probably beats himself up every day more than the media do. And as for the one thing he most like to do over, no surprise, the president pointed to the health care website. He said, despite regular meetings where he emphasized how important the website was...
OBAMA: The fact is, it didn't happen in the first month, the first six weeks, in a way that was at all acceptable.
SHAPIRO: Yet, Obama continued defending the core of the law. He said the many hiccups over the last few months in no way undermine Obamacare or suggest that it ought to be repealed.
OBAMA: There hasn't been an instance where you tried to really have an impact on the American peoples' lives and well-being, particularly in the health care arena, where you don't end up having some of these challenges.
SHAPIRO: Talking about regrets, the president also mentioned the government shutdown in October. He said he regrets the harm that it caused Americans' families. On the other hand, he added...
OBAMA: In some ways, given the pattern that we have been going through with House Republicans for a while, 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.
SHAPIRO: He even said he sees a glimmer of bipartisan hope for next year. At the end of the briefing, Obama was asked about burnout and turnover on his staff in this rough year. He gave a long, reflective answer and ended saying, we get this incredible privilege for a pretty short period of time to do as much as we can for as many people as we can.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.
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