President Obama has a more than 11-hour flight ahead of him to Hawaii, but at his press conference on Friday it felt like he was already on vacation. He was loose as he joked with a Politico reporter about the magazine’s new Brussels’ bureau, admitted to another he’d forgotten the back half of her list of questions, and even interrupted his remarks to say “bless you” to someone who sneezed. Before leaving the podium he offered the traditional Hawaiian Christmas salutation (Bing Crosby earworm available here). But if it seemed like he might let slip the cocktail umbrella up his sleeve into a fruity drink, Obama was more serious about the messages he was sending to everyone from the North Korean dictator to Sony executives and the network television bosses who wouldn’t air his address about immigration last month.
In November, President Obama’s party took a pounding at the polls. In the press conference the day after, Obama avoided offering a word or descriptive phrase to encapsulate the catastrophe. (It’s something he and past presidents have often done in the wake of a drubbing.) He then sort of refused to take the loss, reminding the world that he too had a constituency: the voters who elected him and re-elected him, a larger group than had just handed Republicans control of the Senate.
In the 40 days between that press conference and the one he gave Friday, the president has worked that same seam—unburdened and loose from having no more elections to face. First, he announced his support for strong net neutrality, then he announced a climate deal with China—secret and long in the making—that helped jump-start progress in global talks, then he issued the executive order protecting as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. After that came an EPA ruling on ozone emissions, a budget deal to keep the government open, and the historic deal opening diplomatic relations with Cuba.
This press conference was an exclamation point on this dash in his presidency. Obama clearly seemed pleased with the way things have been going. He said he still remained open to working with Republicans, and he said nothing ill of them. His goal next year, he said, was to separate those things that he and Republicans agree on (tax reform, infrastructure improvements, and trade) from those things they will fight passionately over (everything else). 2015 is going to be an exciting year, with Republicans anxious to show they can govern and the president anxious to show he’s still got more punch.
Obama did have a little chin music for network television executives whose representatives he didn’t call on during the 45-minute event. He only called on female correspondents, in another sign that in ways big and small he’s going to do things his way. The president said he thought Sony executives had made a mistake removing The Interview from theaters. “That’s not who we are,” he said.
In fact, Obama had a lot to say about who we are. Asked about race relations in America, he expanded his remarks to talk about the general resilience and goodness of the American people. It was his own long-standing paean to American Exceptionalism, though his critics say he is only capable of running down the country.
“The vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing. People are basically good and have good intentions,” he said. He said his general theme for the end of the year was, “We’ve gone through difficult times. … But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solve problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border. And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And, you know, part of what I hope, as we reflect on the new year, this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can’t be stopped.”
The president said next year will be the fourth quarter of his presidency. An exciting time, he said. Perhaps that will be true if he’s got surprises like the ones he unveiled in the past 40 days—the deals with China and Cuba were covert operations. But presidencies aren’t like sporting events. Every morning after the final election of a second term, the valet will lay out the lame-duck suit on his chair. The president has vigorously resisted it so far. He will need to rest up on vacation because it will be waiting for him when he returns.