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Jules Witcover: After horrible year, Obama's Christmas break couldn't come soon enough

As President Obama tries to enjoy his Christmas vacation in Hawaii (the land of his birth, as recognized by most Americans except the diehard fringe still casting him as a foreigner), he has a lot to reflect on.

In his last White House press conference before departing, he exchanged tidings of good cheer with reporters. But he was also peppered with as many reminders of how badly things turned out for him in the past year. It fell to the toughest but fairest reporter in the room, ABC News' Jonathan Karl, to confront him with the bark off: "You may not want to call it the worst year of your presidency, but it's clearly been a tough year."

Citing both the health-care rollout and Obama's sharp drop in the polls, Mr. Karl asked: "What do you think has been your biggest mistake?" The president did not hesitate to identify the rollout of his health-care insurance plan, bluntly acknowledging that "since I'm in charge, obviously we screwed it up," and going on at length to discuss the failure of the website.

Mr. Obama was obliged as well to answer questions about changes he agreed to in the health-care law to accommodate the irate holders of cancelled insurance policies that did not meet its specific standards. In effect, he admitted there were consequences his handlers had not anticipated that have roiled so many Americans.

Not surprisingly, the president also did his best to accentuate the positive. He cited 2 million new jobs added in the last month and 8 million over the last 45, while taking note of the unemployment rate stuck at 7 percent. He said the federal deficit had been halved in his tenure and his Affordable Care Act had registered more than 500,000 new enrollees in the first three weeks of December.

But overall, Obama was like a boxer hedged into a corner, warding off shots at his head and body by a White House press corps loaded for bear, in what some have said or written has been his worst year in the presidency. Even as he bobbed and weaved, the president professed to see ahead "a landscape for next year" in which "we're poised to do really good things."

He envisioned a stronger economy for the middle class and immigration reform, his hopes buoyed by the recent bipartisan budget deal. Ever the optimist, he said that after the government shutdown the Washington politicians might have needed "a sort of bracing recognition that this is not what the American people think is acceptable."

But when he was asked whether he would negotiate on the debt ceiling, the next looming confrontation with the House Republicans, Obama crisply shot back: "You know the answer to this question. No, we're not going to negotiate for Congress to pay bills that it has accrued."

A moment later, to a query about his New Year's resolution, he grinned and replied: "To be nicer to the White House Press Corps. Absolutely." Yet the hardballs kept coming: Would he consider amnesty for exiled surveillance insider Edward Snowden, as head of a National Security Agency task force on him had mentioned? It was one thing for somebody like that to broach the subject, he said, and another for the president, charged with upholding the law Snowden has been accused of defying.

Foreign policy questions about Iran's nuclear program and his apparent resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons issue were a welcome switch from Obamacare. But taken together, all these weighty matters may make it difficult for him to truly enjoy his Hawaiian respite.

At the same time, Barack Obama has been effective in the past presenting himself as a man who can compartmentalize his challenges and woes. His outward unflappability carried him through an unusually aggressive session with the White House press corps. For his sake and that of the American public, the reporters' own resolution should be to subject him to more of the same in 2014.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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