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On Friday, Obama stood at the podium at the White House and dared anyone to try the same with him.
“Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter. And I’m looking forward to it,” Obama said, at the outset of the 2014 wrap-up press conference at the White House, as he promised a year that would be heavy on outreach to Congress but also moving forward on his own — protecting health care and financial regulations, and pushing forward on immigration reform.
Or, as he put it in the subject line of the email that went out from his old political group Organizing for Action as the press conference wrapped up: “I’m not done.”
In part, Obama’s got the larger political dynamics to thank. At this point in the run-up to 2008, everyone knew who the candidates were going to be, and most of the candidates had already started picking out office space for their headquarters.. This time around, even the politician most expected to run — Hillary Clinton — has pushed off a final announcement until the spring. The action’s so slim that Jeb Bush’s Facebook post that he was “actively exploring” a presidential run was enough to come off like a cannonball.
And as much as White House aides gloat about the recent run of good news that’s fed the sense of a turnaround — “It gets better,” was the year-end message Obama stressed as he closed up the press conference and got ready to head to Hawaii for two weeks — they admit that they’ve gotten lucky in the timing. The climate deal with China, the booming Obamacare enrollment numbers, the teetering of the Russian economy — were all the result of long planning but ripened in close succession more on their own timetable than due to any great plan to jam-pack the last few weeks of the year.
They count the surprise rush of long-languishing confirmations in the closing days of the Senate as gravy.
Then there’s the president’s reopening of relations with Cuba. Beyond revamping one of the longest-standing pieces of American foreign policy, Obama on Wednesday pulled off a total surprise, with the news not leaking until the plane carrying freed American Alan Gross was already in U.S. airspace. Sure Obama’s planning on opening an embassy in Havana, but the move allowed him to project more than that: He’s got stuff up his sleeve most people aren’t even thinking about, and there’s no predicting what he might do next — on his own.
Republicans should take notice, people in the West Wing think, but Democrats, too.
How good was Obama feeling about the closing note he’d put on the year? He told an extended story of joking around with Raúl Castro about who was the most long-winded while the two men were on the phone Tuesday.
The result: Of the eight reporters Obama called on Friday, three of them asked about Cuba. None of them asked about the Republicans’ midterm rout. None of them asked about the torture report. None of them asked about the war he stoked with liberals last week by endorsing an omnibus spending plan that peeled back part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and blew the door open on campaign contributions. None of them asked about Ebola, or Veterans Affairs, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or any of the other things that engulfed the president earlier in the year.
The questions about working with the new Republican majority were limited to a wonky one about corporate tax reform and one asking whether he was worried that his executive action emphasis was going to spoil relations with the new Congress.
Obama, as he did on nearly every question — including one on race relations, which he’s often struggled to address in similar settings — quickly and calmly ran through lines he’d clearly prepared. He reiterated that he wants to work with Republicans, dismissing their argument that they would be legislating more if not for his executive actions.
Obama’s point: “I intend to continue to do what I’ve been doing.”
In a rarity for a big Obama press conference, there weren’t any major slip-ups. The most he gave Twitter was a declaration of love for “James Flacko,” co-star of the “The Interview.”
But that wasn’t enough to distract from the news Obama eagerly made by calling Sony’s decision to cancel the release of the movie a “mistake,” and one that he would have urged the company not to make if they’d checked with him.
Since they didn’t, he took the company to task from the White House podium for giving into North Korea and setting a dangerous precedent for self-censorship brought on by a leader Obama only referred to as “some dictator someplace.”
“Let’s not get into that way of doing business,” Obama said.
Even taking a question from one more reporter than was on his pre-set list, Obama kept the press conference under an hour and kept his answers short, punchy and pointed. Though he did eventually work in a jab at reporters — for covering “crises that look like they’re popping” — he spent most of the press conference in a calm conversation with them, with some good-natured teasing thrown in.
And he started to seed the ground for what’s next. Dropped in to his comments about race relations was the fact that the prison population and crime rate were both dropping simultaneously for the first time in years, which creates an opportunity to “think smarter” — as he wants to do with sentencing reform. Shortly after, he released a statement pushing forward on another of his original priorities as president, closing the prison at Guantanamo, where there are clearly behind-the-scenes negotiations underway.
“The Guantanamo detention facility’s continued operation undermines our national security,” Obama said. “We must close it.”
Throughout the midterm campaigns, Obama would talk privately about missing being out on the campaign trail. Aides raged against Democratic strategists for sidelining him.
“Here’s someone who is very good at making an argument and very good at campaigning,” a senior White House aide said earlier this week, reflecting on their sense of the president at the end of the year, “who could not make an argument, who couldn’t campaign.”