President Obama offered a spirited defense of his national security agenda Friday at a press conference in which he also warned Republicans they would be making a mistake in forcing a government shutdown showdown over ObamaCare funding.
In one of his final events before leaving for an eight-day vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Obama also explained his defense of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers — a candidate to lead the Federal Reserve — and called on the House to pass the Senate’s immigration bill.
The controversy surrounding those programs has contributed to falling poll numbers for Obama, who after a bruising summer dominated by a series of controversies has seen his approval ratings fall to the low 40s.
If there is a silver lining for Obama, it is that his Republican opposition has also been in disarray and suffers from even lower approval ratings.
House Republicans are also flirting with moving a government-funding bill that would include no money for the new healthcare law, a move that could lead to a government shutdown.
Obama said that repealing the law had become a “Holy Grail” and “ideological fixation” for Republicans, and warned that voters would not appreciate the idea, floated by some GOP lawmakers, that a budget deal should be tied to defunding the law.
“The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting healthcare is a bad idea,” the president said, adding that he assumed Republicans “will not take that path.”
“I have confidence that common sense, in the end, will prevail.”
Obama defended the NSA programs and noted he had called for them to be reviewed even before former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about phone and Internet surveillance. “My preference, and I think the American people's preference, would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws, a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place,” he said.
Obama called the Snowden case the latest in a series of setbacks with Russia, citing the country's human rights record and differences on the conflict in Syria, while cautioning reporters not to read too much into the apparent personal animosity between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He also flatly rejected calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, which has been suggested in the aftermath of Russia's decision to grant asylum to Snowden and a series of anti-gay laws signed by Putin.
“One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there,” he said.
Obama also defended his administration's handling of both the Benghazi, Libya, terror attack and a new alert that has led the State Department to shutter nearly two dozen embassies and diplomatic missions across the Middle East.
On Benghazi, Obama said the U.S. was “intent on capturing those who carried out this attack.”
“I also said we'd get bin Laden, and we didn't get him in 11 months,” Obama said in response to critics who noted nobody had been arrested in conjunction with the attacks.
Asked if the decision to close embassies cast in doubt his previous assessment that al Qaeda was “on its heels,” Obama doubled down, saying the terror group was “less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11.”
Still, Obama said, regional terror networks posed a significant threat to American interests and personnel overseas.
Domestically, Obama said that both Summers and Janet Yellen were “highly qualified candidates” to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.
He said his closed-door comments to congressional Democrats defending Summers shouldn't be over-analyzed as a preference for any candidate, comparing them to Republican attacks on National Security Adviser Susan Rice, whose potential Secretary of State candidacy was scuttled over comments she made after the Benghazi attack.
The president's remarks in the East Room were his first solo press conference in more than three months and the final public event he will hold in Washington, D.C., before heading to Martha's Vineyard.
On Saturday, the president and first lady will address disabled veterans at a forum in Orlando, Fla., flying directly from Florida to the exclusive Massachusetts island where he will spend the next week.