Before President Barack Obama jets off to Hawaii for his annual Christmas vacation, he will carry out a White House ritual: the year-end news conference.
Obama’s sixth year in office was a difficult one. He faced foreign policy crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, lost Democratic control of the Senate and saw his approval rating plummet.
Yet the president ends 2014 on an upbeat note. In the weeks since the election, he’s wielded his executive powers on immigration, climate change, and U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Five topics Obama may be asked about when he takes questions Friday afternoon:
1. CUBA: The president on Wednesday announced a diplomatic opening with Cuba, lifting certain travel and economic restrictions. A broader, 50-year-old economic embargo on Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by Congress. The historic deal with Havana was negotiated as part of Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. The deal also involved a spy swap. Cuba released a Cuban who had been in prison for nearly 20 years for spying for the United States. The U.S. in turn released three Cubans convicted of spying.
Republican leaders have criticized the move, though some GOP lawmakers favor increased ties to Cuba. Obama likely faces questions about the spy exchange as well as prospects for change under the Castro government.
2. SONY HACKING: So far, the White House isn’t saying who it thinks is responsible for a cyberterrorism attack on Sony. But a U.S. official says federal investigators have connected North Korea to the attack that ultimately led Sony to cancel the planned release of the movie “The Interview.”
Questions persist about how the U.S. might respond if North Korea is tied conclusively to the attack. White House spokesman Josh Earnest would say only that any response would be “proportional.”
Options are limited: The U.S. already has a trade embargo in place, and there is no appetite for military action. And hacking North Korean targets by U.S. government experts could encourage further attacks against American targets.
3. CAPITOL HILL POLITICS: Obama will have a Republican-led Congress for the first time in his presidency when the GOP takes control of the Senate in January. Both Obama and Republican leaders say that creates opportunities for compromise on issues such as trade or taxes. But it’s also a recipe for two years of confrontation. Obama has his veto pen, which he has used only twice in the past six years.
The new lineup raises the question: How willing will he be to annoy Democratic allies by cutting legislative deals with the GOP? He has already enraged Republicans with executive actions to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. And he probably will have to fend off further attempts to erode his health care law.
4. RUSSIA: Obama has faced criticism all year that he was too slow and cautious in responding to Russia’s provocations in Ukraine. But the president’s strategy of hitting Moscow with a stream of economic sanctions is contributing to the collapse of Russia’s currency, as is the falling price of oil.
But the question for Obama is whether Russia’s economic woes will persuade President Vladimir Putin to leave Ukraine alone. And what will the impact from Russia’s currency troubles be on the rejuvenated U.S. economy and European allies who have deep commercial ties with Moscow?
5. LEGACY: Obama still has two more years left in office, but he’s already thinking about what he’ll leave behind. Will his legacy be his health care legislation? A potential nuclear deal with Iran? Making traction on climate change?
A big piece of Obama’s legacy could be shaped by whether the next president keeps his policies in place. The president appears to have given the looming 2016 campaign some thought, saying last month that voters would want a “new car smell.”
Was that a dig at his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden? Or maybe a subtle endorsement of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren?
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