What did the president of the United States say at his annual year-end press conference?
Any way you look at it, Russian scope beats American efficiency. This was once again confirmed when I compared Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama’s presidential press conferences. It’s not just that a whole regiment of journalists asked Putin questions and only a half-company asked Obama, that Putin’s press conference was a marathon and Obama’s was a middle-distance running event, that Putin pardoned a “big fish” — Mikhail Khodorkovsky — and Obama pardoned small fries — several drug dealers. (Obama didn’t eke out a pardon for Snowden.) It’s because the tone was major in Moscow and minor in Washington. Even Obama was forced to admit it, starting the conference with, “It’s not the most wonderful press conference of the year.”*
According to the White House pre-Christmas ritual, Obama was generous with jokes and holiday wishes. But jokes were reminiscent of laughter through tears, and wishes were soaked in the vinegar of pessimism. Everything indicated that it was hard for the president to play his part. He had one foot here in Washington and the other in Hawaii. As noted by Jackie Kelms, one of the White House reporters, “It was as if the president could already smell the exhaust fumes of Marine One, which within hours would whisk him and his family from the South Lawn of the White House on the beginning of their annual holiday trip, a full two weeks in Hawaii.” Besides, Obama himself did not hide this. He said, “I know you are all eager to skip town and spend some time with your families. Not surprisingly, I am, too.”
Done with work, time to play? On the contrary, Obama left a pile of unfinished business in Washington. Indeed, 2013 was not wonderful among Obama’s five presidential years, which were filled by successive crises. And although he promised that the coming year 2014 will be, or rather can be, “a breakthrough year for America,” there was no confidence in his voice. No wonder that during the press conference Obama did not even hint about what breakthroughs he had in mind and how he will break through the Republican “Mannerheim Line.” All hope remained only on the Hawaiian salubrious climate. Obama said, “The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year. That’s how I intend to approach it. I’m sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.”
The president noted some positive indicators in the economy and promised to develop them in the next year. Indeed, there were changes in the employment, production growth and deficit reduction areas. But Obama’s responses did not include an agenda for 2014, although he repeated several times that 2014 should be a “year of action.”
Commentators and analysts agree that as a manager, Obama doesn’t have a clear agenda and doesn’t know how to push his initiatives through Congress’s barbed wire. This is even though the first year of the second term is generally considered to be the most fruitful for the president. After this, there is an increasing slippage into the lame-duck period. But now Obama’s positive rating has already fallen to 41 percent. However, the Congress’s rating is even lower — 16 percent. This is after the long-suffering federal law on health insurance was passed. There is a growing scandal surrounding the National Security Agency’s surveillance of one and all. As Senator Jeff Sessions metaphorically put it, “Like the frog in the warming water, we do not realize we are being cooked and that the freedoms of Americans are being cooked.”
The mini-press conference’s first question to Obama was, “Has this been the worst year of your presidency?” Obama smiled wryly and said that during his years in the White House, reporters have attributed at least 15 near-death experiences to him. Obama listed the failure to pass the immigration law (which would make 11 million people U.S. citizens), budget and health insurance problems, and the failure to restrict public access to firearms. It turned out that all of his ambitious ideas for 2013 reached an impasse. Even the positive shift in NSA matter has been limited to a panel’s recommendations on how to curb the worldwide wiretapping web. Many people expected Obama to use the podium at the press conference to announce his agreement with the panel’s conclusions. But this didn’t happen. However, Obama promised to think about it during the vacation.
Speaking about the stalemate in the relationship with the Republicans, Obama has once again expressed his hope that the gridlock won’t last forever. But in March, the government faces a new paralysis in connection with the problem of raising the debt ceiling. Obama did not sound very convincing when he said that he sees “daylight breaking.”
The president admitted his guilt in many of his administration’s problems. He said that he beats himself up more than the press beats him up. He added, “But I’ve also got to wake up in the morning and make sure that I do better the next day, and that we keep moving forward. And when I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is, we’re poised to do really good things.” It sounded weak. Pragmatism and caution always clip the wings of Obama’s optimism.
The president looked visibly tired when, after the press conference, he went on his well-earned break. With the approach of Christmas and New Year, Washington became deserted. Even Hillary Clinton took a break in her campaign for the 2016 presidency. The politicians are letting off steam to prevent an explosion — at least for the next two holiday weeks. In short, all is well, lovely Madame la Marquise … **
*Editor’s note: The actual quote is, “It’s the most wonderful press conference of the year.”
** Editor’s note: The author is making a reference to the song Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise, in which (per Wikipedia) “the Marquise is told by her servants that everything is fine at home, except for a series of escalating calamities.”