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Obama Wraps Up A 'Breakthrough' 2014

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The end of the year's often a time for reflection. It certainly was for President Obama, who held his year-end press conference yesterday. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith was there.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At a similar press conference a year ago, President Obama said 2014 would be a breakthrough year for America. But for much of the year that seemed far from reality - what with the crisis along the southern border, so-called Islamic State militants amassing territory and forcing the U.S. military back into Iraq, the protests in Ferguson and beyond exposing difficult race relations in the country and then the arrival of Ebola. But looking back, Obama insisted it really was a breakthrough year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More jobs, more people insured, a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy - take any metric that you want - America's resurgence is real. We are better off.

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KEITH: Maybe it was vacation calling, but the president was upbeat and at times even a little punchy.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, all I want for Christmas is to take your questions.

KEITH: Obama said he was energized and excited about the next two years - the final two years of his presidency.

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OBAMA: We are better positioned than we have been in a very long time and the future's ready to be written.

KEITH: That future will inevitably include congressional Republicans, who will control both the House and the Senate next year. And Obama said there are real opportunities to get things done working with the new Republican Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: I take Speaker Boehner and Mitch McConnell at their words that they want to get things done. I think the American people would like to see us get some things done. The question's going to be are we able to separate out those areas where we disagree and those areas where we agree? I think there are going to be some tough fights on areas where we disagree.

KEITH: And he said he won't be afraid to use his veto pen. Infrastructure, taxes, trade - those are areas where Obama thinks there's potential for cooperation and compromise. One area where the president can expect significant pushback from Congress is Cuba.

Earlier this week, Obama announced the U.S. would begin to normalize relations with the country, but a number of Senate Republicans say he's making a terrible mistake. They say they will try to block funding for an embassy in Havana and would not confirm an ambassador. Obama defended the move even while making plain the U.S. still has many concerns when it comes to Cuba.

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OBAMA: I don't anticipate overnight changes, but what I know, deep in my bones, is that if you've done the same thing for 50 years and nothing's changed you should try something different if you want a different outcome.

KEITH: Since the election, Obama has taken executive action on immigration and now Cuba. He's tried to shape events rather than simply react to them, but the recent hacking attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment and the studio's decision not to release the film "The Interview" proves the president can't choose all his battles. The FBI confirmed that the North Korean government was behind the attack. North Korea denies any involvement. Obama said Sony made a mistake in pulling a film.

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OBAMA: We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.

KEITH: And Obama said the U.S. won't let this cyberattack go unanswered.

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OBAMA: We will respond proportionately and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.

KEITH: As to whether he would try to watch the satirical film about an assassination attempt on the North Korean president, Obama said he has a lot of movies on his list this holiday season. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.