WASHINGTON: After a tough year capped by a bruising defeat for his Democrats in last month’s midterm elections, no one would blame President Barack Obama if he were a bit down.
On Friday at his year-end press conference, he was anything but down.
“I’m energized. I’m excited about the prospects for the next couple of years,” Obama told reporters.
Far from a man beaten down by partisan politics, Obama — riding high on a stronger economy, his surprise opening to Cuba and his unilateral overhaul of the immigration system — seemed more confident than ever.
“Pick any metric that you want — America’s resurgence is real. We are better off,” he said, several hours before heading to his home state of Hawaii for the holidays with his family.
“We are better positioned than we have been in a very long time.”
2014 was the best year for job growth in two decades, Obama said at a decidedly upbeat press conference during which he did not address ongoing thorny nuclear talks with Iran or the controversial report on the CIA’s brutal treatment of terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
“In last year’s final press conference, I said that 2014 would be a year of action and would be a breakthrough year for America. And it has been,” Obama said.
The president added that he was looking forward to the “fourth quarter” of his presidency — a sports reference from an avid basketball fan and player.
This year hasn’t always been as sunny.
At the end of a campaign that saw many candidates from his own party keep their distance from him, and his poll numbers waning, Obama watched the Democrats lose control of the Senate in the mid-term elections.
For the last two years of his presidency, Obama will not have it easy when dealing with a Congress run by rival Republicans.
Just a few months ago, Obama seemed aloof, often hesitant — a man who has lost the fire that carried him to a historic election victory in 2008.
That image was reinforced by the pointed barbs launched by former Pentagon and CIA chief Leon Panetta, who said his former boss “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
For the past six weeks, however, Obama has been transformed.
He has come out swinging — on net neutrality, on climate change, on immigration and, most surprisingly, on a historic shift in Cuba policy.
On Friday, he was relaxed, joking with reporters.
He vowed to “respond” to North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures, and offered a long defense of his unexpected rapprochement with Havana after more than 50 years of acrimony.
“What I know deep in my bones is that if you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome,” he said.
Side-stepping the idea of a quick trip to the communist-ruled island, Obama did say he hoped to go at some point.
“I’m a fairly young man so I imagine that at some point in my life, I will have the opportunity to visit Cuba and enjoy interacting with the Cuban people,” he told reporters.
The 53-year-old president described a scene that was almost unthinkable a week ago — his telephone conversation with Raul Castro, the 83-year-old Cuban leader.
After explaining Washington’s position to Castro — “about 15 minutes, which on the phone is a pretty long time” — Obama said he apologized for speaking at length.
He said Castro jokingly replied: “Don’t worry about it, Mr President — you’re still a young man and you have still the chance to break Fidel’s record — he once spoke seven hours straight.”
In a first, Obama opted to only take questions from female journalists.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that it was a deliberate choice.
“There are many women from a variety of news organizations who day in and day out do the hard work of covering the president of the United States,” Earnest said.
“As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the president’s closely watched, end of the year news conference.”
Obama ended on a cheery note, saying that while American institutions sometimes “don’t work as well as they should… things get better.”
“And now I’m going to go on vacation,” he added.