President Barack Obama wrapped up a rough 2013 on Friday with his annual year-end press conference. Between copping to health-care mistakes and alluding to future NSA reforms, here was the news of note from the 57-minute presser:
1. Expect a shift away from Congress.
Obama bemoaned Washington’s focus on legislative action, where his agenda has been stymied. He suggested that reporters look to the states and to the executive branch for policy progress in 2014.
“There’s a lot of focus on legislative activity at the congressional level,” Obama said, “but even when Congress doesn’t move on things they should move on, there are a whole bunch of things that we’re still doing.” He ticked off a list of programs run by the executive branch that he said would create jobs and grow the economy.
“A lot of our legislative initiatives in Congress have not moved forward as rapidly as I’d like,” the President added, in response to a question from the AP’s Julie Pace. “ I completely understand that, which means that I’m going to keep at it. And if you look at, for example, immigration reform, probably the biggest thing that I wanted to get done this year, we saw progress. It passed the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote.”
Despite minor agreements in recent weeks, there is no end in sight to the legislative logjam next year. With the 2014 midterms looming, lawmakers will be extra cautious and big deals harder to come by. Obama’s decision to bring in John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, as a senior advisor foreshadows a new focus on executive orders and executive actions. “I think he’ll be a huge boost to us and give us more bandwidth to deal with more issues,” Obama said of his new adviser.
2. NSA reforms are around the corner
2013 was the year of Edward Snowden, and the slow drip-drip of stories stemming from Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance programs prompted both Democrats and Republicans to express concerns about their overreach.
Last week Obama was presented with 46 recommendations by a panel examining the NSA’s programs. Days later, he held a meeting with Silicon Valley CEOs who objected to them. In his press conference, Obama signaled that changes are afoot.
“I’m going to make a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January,” Obama said, “where I’ll be able to say, here are the recommendations that we think make sense, here are ones that we think as promising but still need to be refined further, here’s how it relates to the work we’re doing not just — not just internally but also in partnership with other countries.
Obama has already rejected one of the group’s proposals: to split command of the NSA and the military’s Cyber Command. But the President hinted that he is open to many of the panel’s other suggestions.
“There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances, that there’s sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency,” Obama said of the surveillance programs. “Programs like [telephone metadata collection] could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse, and that’s exactly what we should be doing, is to evaluate all these things in a very clear, specific way and moving forward on changes. And that’s what I intend to do.”
3. Obama finds an old foil
The President spent much of his sparring session with the Washington press corps performing the standard self-flagellation rituals. But you could detect a rare hint of glee in the President’s voice as he fielded a question about another round of debt brinkmanship.
“We’re not going to negotiate for Congress to pay bills it has accrued,” Obama said in response to a question about whether the White House will barter with House Republicans over extending federal borrowing authority, which is slated to expire Feb. 7. The suggestion was raised by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, who said Republicans “don’t want nothing” in exchange for lifting the debt limit.
But after scoffing at the prospect, Obama went on to praise Ryan for his work hashing out a recent budget accord with Democratic Senator Patty Murray. “They should take pride in what they did,” Obama said, “and I actually called them after they struck the deal, and I said, congratulations. And I hope that creates a good pattern for next year, where work on, at least, the things we agreed to, even if we agree to disagree on some of the other big-ticket items.”
Once again, Obama has elevated Ryan, the rising Republican star and former vice-presidential nominee, as the GOP’s negotiator in chief. The question is why.
There are two main possibilities. One is the President believes that Ryan, unlikely other Republicans, is up to the job. The White House has little interest in rekindling negotiations with John Boehner, convinced the House Speaker can’t deliver his caucus and isn’t willing to buck them. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has a record of stepping in to cut deals at the 11th-hour—but he’s a backroom operator, not a front man, and he’ll be sidelined for much of next year by a re-election campaign. Ryan, on the other hand, just delivered a bipartisan budget accord amid opposition from movement conservatives.
On the other hand, Obama may simply be in search of a foil. Ryan makes a good one. For the White House, one of the few bright spots in a gloomy political landscape is that the President remains far more popular than Congressional Republicans. The House budget chair is known for his radioactive prescriptions to overhaul entitlement programs. Obama has elevated Ryan before; in 2010, during a televised meeting with the House GOP, he singled out the Wisconsin conservative for his budget proposal—then proceeded to pound on him for it.
“If Congressman Ryan is interested in tax reform, let’s go,” Obama said. But few people in Washington, save the story-starved press corps, put much stock in the prospect of passing a controversial rewrite of the tax code. Least interested of all are Congressional Republicans, who believe they are poised to pick up seats in November by harping on healthcare reform.
Any discussion of taxes and budgets and fiscal issues distracts from that goal. That may be why Obama is trying to coax Ryan into a debate where the Democrats actually have the advantage. As long as the President has a less popular foe, he has a political lifeline in a divided capital.
4. More White House personnel moves are around the corner
The recent turnover in the administration around the oversight of Obamacare and dealings with Capitol Hill aren’t the end of the staff shakeup as the President prepares to enter his sixth year in office.
“I suspect that we may have additional announcements in the new year,” Obama said. “You know, there’s — there’s a natural turnover that takes place. People get tired; people get worn out. Sometimes, you need fresh legs.”
Noting that many of his aides have had to be away from “families and soccer games and birthdays, and some of them will end up working over Christmas on issues like Iran…And if they then say to me after making those sacrifices for three, four, five years, you know, I need a break, you know, then — then I completely understand.”