WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Friday shrugged off his deep dip in polling among the American people, telling a year-end news conference, “We screwed it up” in launching his health care overhaul but saying in the coming year the country is poised “to do very good things.”
With his standing in the polls at or near record lows, Obama acknowledged frustration that his legislative goals had been largely crushed by Republicans in Congress. But he said he takes satisfaction in the fact that “we’ve got several million people who are going to have health insurance.”
On revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden about National Security Agency collection of data about Americans’ communications, the president said he is preparing “a pretty definitive statement about this in January.”
His remarks suggest that his views have changed significantly since details of the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance programs were publicly revealed in June.
“The environment has changed,” Obama said. He said that it “matters more that people right now are concerned,” and added, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should.”
The revelations, Obama said, have shaken the “confidence and trust” of some Americans, causing them to worry that their privacy is no longer secure. He insisted that the NSA is not doing anything contrary to U.S. law but that he feels NSA programs might need to be changed to restore the trust citizens have in their government’s security operations.
One reform could be to stop the practice of government storing phone records for five years and shift that storage to phone companies.
“I have confidence that the NSA is not engaged in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” Obama said, but added, “We may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”
He did not address a federal judge’s ruling earlier last week that some of the NSA’s activities are likely unconstitutional. Judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s operation “Orwellian” in scope and said there is little evidence that its vast trove of data from American users had prevented a terrorist attack.
The administration Friday also dropped its objection to the publication of a secret court opinion on the law that authorizes the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records.
The Justice Department told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in a filing Friday that the department will not object if the court decides to publish nonclassified portions of its opinion that do not harm an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
Despite his fall in the polls, Obama appeared confident and relaxed as he looked forward to a departure later in the day with his family for his traditional Christmas season vacation in Hawaii, where he was born.
Obama championed the improving economy and said next year “can be a breakthrough year for America” after a long season of recession and slow recovery.
The president fielded questions a few hours after the government announced the economy grew at a solid 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed.
The president praised Congress for a recent, relatively modest budget compromise, saying, “It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship. But it’s also fair to say we’re not condemned to endless gridlock.”
He renewed his long-standing refusal to negotiate concessions with Republicans in exchange for legislation that will be needed in the coming months to raise the nation’s debt limit. “It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It’s not leverage. It’s a responsibility of Congress,” he said.
Asked if this year has been the worst of his presidency, Obama laughed and said, “That’s not how I think about it.”
High-visibility parts of his agenda have yet to make it through Congress, including a call for gun safety legislation in the wake of a major school shooting a year ago and a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws.
In his review of the year, Obama also noted that U.S. combat troops finally will be withdrawn from Afghanistan during the coming year.