By Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes - 12/20/13 02:45 PM EST
President Obama rued the rollout of the healthcare website as his biggest mistake of the year during a White House news conference Friday, underlining the extent to which the issue has overshadowed everything else during a dismal 2013 for the 44th president.
Asked about his worst error, Obama said that he had stressed the need for consumers to have “a good experience, an easy experience” in the run-up to the launch of HealthCare.Gov.
Yet, at the same time, Obama emphasized that enrollment into the health exchanges was rapidly picking up pace.
“More than half a million Americans enrolled on HealthCare.Gov in the first three weeks of December alone,” he said.
He later lamented, “Probably the first month and a half was lost because of problems with the website” and the attendant bad publicity.
Earlier, Obama dodged a question as to whether 2013 had been the worst year of his tenure.
“I gotta tell you, that’s not how I think about it,” Obama said in response to a question from the Associated Press.
The questioner noted the lack of progress on his domestic agenda, the fiasco of the healthcare rollout and his falling approval ratings.
Questions at the press conference largely revolved around two issues: the damage wrought by the health insurance rollout, and continuing controversy over the spy programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and exposed by former CIA employee Edward Snowden.
Those are among the controversies that have dragged Obama’s approval ratings down to all-time lows less than a year after he was inaugurated to a second term following a relatively comfortable election victory over Republican Mitt Romney.
Just hours before he took the podium, a new CNN/ORC poll showed his approval rating at just 41 percent. That figure was unchanged from the previous month, and is the lowest-ever level for Obama in the CNN poll.
But the president said that he would never have run for president had he been concerned about poll ratings, which he noted had swung wildly throughout his time in office.
In a not-so-subtle jab at the press, Obama said that. “I think this room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences.” But, he added, “I’m going to keep at it.”
Expanding on that sense of confidence, Obama proclaimed that “2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”
In statistics released earlier on Friday, the Commerce Department said that the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 4.1 percent in the third quarter, a much stronger performance than was previously thought.
The figures came with the Dow Jones Index at a near record high, with the unemployment rate down to 7 percent and just two days after the Federal Reserve, in another mark of confidence, announced that it would begin tapering off its $85 billion per month bond-buying program.
Obama made no real news in the presser, reiterating his healthcare gaffes while choosing to side step a question about his infamous line "if you like your plan, you can keep it."
While he fielded questions on the NSA, he also walked the delicate line of not revealing too much.
Other controversies, including the IRS’s targeting of political groups and the aftermath of the fatal attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year went unmentioned at Obama’s news conference.
But the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program did come up. The president mounted a vigorous defense of the accord, which has caused disquiet among traditional U.S. allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“There is the possibility of a resolution to a problem that has been a challenge for American national security for over a decade now, and that is getting Iran to, in a verifiable fashion, not pursue a nuclear weapon,” he said.
He added that “we lose nothing during this negotiation period” for a more comprehensive agreement and again insisted that there was no need for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic, contrary to the wishes of some in Congress.
Foreign affairs also came up when Obama was pressed on what message he intended to send to the Russian government with the delegation he intends to send to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
The government in Moscow has been enmeshed in controversy because of its anti-gay laws. The U.S. delegation will not include Obama himself nor other high-ranking officials. But it will include tennis player Billie Jean King and figure skater Brian Boitano, both of whom are gay.
Obama noted that he had not attended Olympics in the past. But he added:
“We don’t make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation. We judge people on how they perform on the court and off the court, on the field and off the field.”
The news conference is expected to be Obama’s last of the year and the James Brady press briefing room was filled to overflowing.
Obama and his family are scheduled to fly to Hawaii later on Friday for a year-end vacation.
Arriving at the podium, Obama said he knew many of the assembled media were also ready to “skip town.”
Further playing off the holiday theme, he called the news conference the “most wonderful” of the year.
But Obama tried to appeal to an embittered press corps — which has grumbled about access issues in recent months to an administration that had promised transparency.
When he was asked by a CNN reporter, what his new years resolution for 2014 is, he paused for a moment and then responded:
"My New Year's resolution is to be nicer to the White House press corps," he said.
This story was posted at 2:45 p.m. and updated at 4 p.m.