President Obama delivered a staunch defense of his record Friday, saying that decisions made earlier in his term had produced a stronger economy and improved quality of life for Americans.
In his final news conference of the year before leaving for two weeks of vacation in his home state of Hawaii, Obama struck a confident, upbeat tone. Even as he fielded questions on terrorism and national security, he sought to highlight some of his domestic and foreign policy achievements over the past year.
Obama acknowledged that there is no way U.S. authorities can guarantee a terrorist-inspired attack like the recent one in San Bernardino, Calif., will not happen again.
"You're absolutely right that it is very difficult for us to detect lone-wolf plots or plots involving a husband and wife, in this case, because despite the incredible vigilance of all of our law enforcement, homeland security, et cetera, it's not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter," he said. "You don't always see it. They're not always communicating publicly, and if you're not catching what they say publicly, then it becomes a challenge."
But he also defended the work of U.S. law enforcement and noted that recent allegations that authorities had overlooked social-media activity by one of the San Bernardino shooters, Tashfeen Malik, were incorrect. A Sunday story in the New York Times suggested she had publicly expressed sympathy for violent jihadists on social media; it turned out she had voiced those sentiments in private emails and messages.
"And our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are constantly monitoring public posts, and that is part of the visa review process," Obama said. "That people are investigating what individuals have said publicly, and questioned about any statements that they maybe made."
"But we're going to have to recognize that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person's texts or emails or social media. If it's not posted publicly, then there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level," the president continued, noting that there are privacy concerns as well. "And, you know, it raises questions about our values."
With his approval numbers lackluster, the president pointed to the slow but steady economic recovery and highlighted a new surge of people signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. He noted that Tuesday was the busiest sign-up day yet for health insurance under the ACA, with 600,000 users on the site, and that 6 million Americans had signed up for coverage starting Jan. 1. The number of uninsured Americans has fallen to 17 million.
The president praised the bipartisan tax and spending measure Congress drew up this week and noted that the administration and Democratic congressional leaders were able to keep what White House press secretary Josh Earnest has called "ideological" riders out of the bill.
"It was a good win," Obama said. "I think the system worked. That gives me some optimism that next year, on a narrow set of issues, we can get some more work done."
At the same time, administration officials said, Obama will call for greater bipartisan cooperation to tackle issues such as gun control, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and criminal justice reform. He will also vow to stand up in the coming year to Republican legal challenges to his executive orders on immigration.
On Friday, Obama commuted the sentences of 95 nonviolent drug offenders, the latest sign of his intensified focus on racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Obama has surpassed the number of 88 commutations granted by the previous four presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — combined.
Criminal justice reform "is one of the issues he feels passionately about," Jen Psaki, adviser to the president, said at a Bloomberg breakfast briefing. "He will take steps to highlight this issue and why it's important" through next year, she said.
Obama spoke as foreign ministers gather in New York to figure out how to bring a halt to fighting in Syria, and the president, unwilling to send in more than a few Special Operations forces, has been pressing for a cease-fire so the international community can focus on the threat from the Islamic State.
This week, Obama has continued to reassure an American public worried about the threat of terrorism, urging people to maintain their ways of life and not give in to fear that the terrorists want to instill. In response to those who said he initially failed to address Americans' fears, the president has held a series of events this week.
The president will stop in San Bernardino to talk to families of some of the shooting victims there before continuing on to Hawaii.
"Obviously those families are going through a difficult time, not just because they've lost loved ones, but obviously, at the holiday season, I think that loss is even more acute," Earnest said Thursday. "So the president felt before he could begin his holiday that it was important for him to spend some time with these Americans who are mourning."