The annual year-end White House press conference is a spectacle of public psychoanalysis and self-flagellation. The press briefing room is packed to the gills for a carnival that’s carried live on television networks and dissected across Twitter.
When the first question for a president is “has this been the worst year of your presidency,” it’s a safe bet that no matter the reply, the real answer is yes. But like a forest fire rebooting an ecosystem or colonic hydrotherapy, the curious ritual serves an important purpose for a struggling president: an opportunity to turn the page.
President Barack Obama’s turn before the White House press corps on Friday—just hours before his helicopter was scheduled to whisk him away to Hawaii—did exactly that. “You know what they say, it’s the most wonderful press conference of the year,” Obama said with an ear-wide smile as he bounded to the podium in the briefing room. And he meant it.
The 57-minute affair featured piercing questions on the troubles surrounding Obama’s signature health care law, the controversial government surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency and his stagnant legislative agenda. “What do you think has been your biggest mistake,” ABC News’ Jon Karl asked. “With respect to health care specifically or just generally,” the president replied with a smile, almost eager to list them all. He settled on the health care law’s botched implementation, saying, “We screwed it up.”
It’s the odd moment in Washington where a politician doesn’t just invite, but looks forward to an assault from the press. “It’s not that I don’t engage in a lot of self- reflection here,” Obama quipped to Karl. “I promise you, I probably beat myself up, you know, even worse than you or [Fox News’] Ed Henry does on any given day.” Let them exhaust their questions, the President may reason, and by the time their stories come out, he’ll be gone for two and a half weeks. And when he returns, maybe—just maybe—all his troubles will be old news.
“You know, the end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year,” Obama said. “That’s how I intend to approach it. I am sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.”