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President Obama Talks Terrorism In Year-End Press Conference

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Obama met privately last night with the families of those who died in the San Bernardino attacks. Terrorism and the ongoing battle with the Islamic State cast a shadow over some of the accomplishments the president tried to highlight in his year-end news conference. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says intelligence agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere are sharing more information in an effort to catch would-be terrorists before they act. But he cautioned killers like those in San Bernardino, who worked largely on their own, are especially difficult to spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

BARACK OBAMA: It's not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter. 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.

HORSLEY: An inaccurate newspaper report this week suggested the government had overlooked jihadi postings on social media when it granted a visa to one of the San Bernardino killers, Tashfeen Malik. Obama stressed the government does check social media when reviewing visa applications. But the FBI notes Malik's postings were not on a public site like Facebook. They were private messages. And Obama questioned whether any government has the resources or the right to cast that wide a dragnet.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: Keep in mind it was only a couple of years ago where we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like Big Brother. And overall, I think we've struck the right balance.

HORSLEY: Obama touted progress the White House has made in other areas this year, including the nuclear deal with Iran and the big Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement. The U.S. economy continues to rebound, he says, with unemployment falling to just 5 percent. And yesterday, the administration announced nearly two and a half million new customers have signed up for health insurance on the government's exchanges.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: So much of our steady persistent work over the years is paying off for the American people in big tangible ways.

HORSLEY: Obama also thanked Congress for ending the year on what he called a high note, passing a long-term highway bill, an education bill to replace No Child Left Behind and a wide-ranging spending bill that rolls back government austerity measures. Obama gave some of the credit for that last measure to the former Republican House speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: John Boehner did a favor to all of us, including now Speaker Ryan, by working with us to agree on a top-line budget framework. That was the basis for subsequent negotiations. He was able to do that because he was going out the door.

HORSLEY: Obama says he's forged a good working relationship with Republican Congressman Paul Ryan who replaced Boehner as House speaker, even though he acknowledged they disagree on a whole bunch of other stuff. The president sees opportunities for some compromise with the GOP-led Congress next year in a few narrow areas. He's still trying to persuade lawmakers to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where just over 100 inmates are now housed.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: We are, you know, essentially at this point detaining a handful of people, and each person is costing several million dollars.

HORSLEY: Congress has repeatedly blocked the president's efforts to close Guantanamo, though some argue Obama could go around lawmakers with his powers as commander in chief. The White House is also mulling an executive action next year on gun control, possibly narrowing the loophole that allows private sales without a background check. Obama insists he's not slowing down.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: Since taking this office, I've never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now. And in 2016, I'm going to leave it out all on the field.

HORSLEY: A year earlier, Obama said his presidency was entering the fourth quarter, when interesting stuff happens. He repeated that observation yesterday and added, we're only halfway through. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.