Obama takes victory lap to close 2015

President Obama on Friday used his year-end press conference to take a victory lap before jetting off to his annual Christmas vacation in Hawaii. 

With the final stretch of his presidency ahead, Obama sought to lay the groundwork for an energetic last year in office, insisting to reporters he’ll remain relevant even as the spotlight shifts to the race to succeed him.

“I said at the beginning of this year interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter and we are only halfway through.”

“In 2016, I’m going to leave it all out on the field.” 

After delivering lengthy answers to several questions, Obama cut off the press conference after 50 minutes, telling reporters he had important business to attend to. 

“OK everybody, I gotta get to ‘Star Wars,’ ” a smiling president told reporters, who continued to shout questions as he walked out of the Brady Press Briefing Room to a special screening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with military families. 

A few minutes later, White House press secretary Josh Earnest appeared in the briefing room flanked by two stormtroopers and R2D2, a moment photographers were just as interested in capturing as Obama himself.

If Obama appeared eager to wrap up his final task of the year, it might be for good reason.

The president defied expectations over the last 12 months. After a disastrous midterm election for his party in 2014, Obama secured legacy-defining accomplishments such as agreements with Cuba and Iran, the Paris climate deal and a Supreme Court decision upholding his signature healthcare law. 

But the past month has been a rough stretch. Obama has struggled to respond to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., which have stoked public fears about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Obama offered a winding defense of his administration’s strategy against ISIS that at times betrayed his annoyance with critics who say his strategy is failing. 

“Whenever I say that we have made progress in squeezing the territory that they control or made real inroads against them, what people will say is, well, if something happens around the world, then obviously that must not be true,” the president said. 

“In any battle, in any fight, even as you make progress, there's still dangers involved.” 

Obama appeared to acknowledge, however, that his initial response to the strikes were off-key. 

He used firmer rhetoric in talking about the group (“We’re going to defeat ISIS”) and urged Americans to remain vigilant about the threat of lone-wolf attacks while acknowledging the U.S. cannot sniff out all threats in advance.

“It’s not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter,” he said. “You don't always see it. They're not always communicating publicly, and if you're not catching what they say publicly, then it becomes a challenge.” 

The president tried to demonstrate he’s learned from his mistakes, too. En route to Hawaii, he’s stopping in San Bernardino to console the families of the victims of the attack there, which left 14 dead and 22 others injured. 

Obama’s to-do list for Congress is pared down compared to past years, a nod to the limits imposed both by the clock and by the presidential campaign, which is nearly certain to gum up the works on Capitol Hill. 

But he insisted he would remain firm getting Congress to pass his few remaining priorities, such as closing down the Guantánomo Bay military prison, passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and overhauling the criminal justice reform system. 

“I’m not going to automatically assume that Congress says no,” Obama said of his Guantánomo plan, which has yet to be submitted to lawmakers. 

But he acknowledged, “it’ll be an uphill battle.”

The president appeared both irked and optimistic about going up against Republicans, who have pledged to reverse his policies from healthcare to global warming. 

He brushed off a suggestion that a Republican successor in the White House could undo the climate deal he struck in Paris, and ridiculed the GOP for being “the only major party that I can think of in the advanced world that effectively denies climate change.”

“Now, do I think there's going to be a lot of noise and campaigning next year about how we're going to stop Paris in its tracks? There will probably be a lot of noise about that,” Obama said. 

“Do I actually think two years from now, three years from now, even Republican members of Congress are going to look at it and say that's a smart thing to do? I don't think they will.” 

At the same time, the president voiced optimism about advancing the trade deal and criminal-justice reform because of the way Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanScalise released from hospital after planned surgery GOP sold Americans a bill of goods with tax reform law Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it MORE (R-Wis.) ushered a $1.1 trillion spending bill through Congress. 

That action, Obama said, signaled an end to the era of “last-minute crises and shutdown threats.”

“It was a good win ... I think the system worked,” Obama said. “That gives me some optimism that, next year, on a narrow set of issues, we can get some more work done.”