President Obama wrapped up 2015 by taking another round of questions from the press.
At the traditional end-of-year news conference Friday afternoon, Obama began with a list of achievements, including the legalization of same-sex marriage across America and progress made toward addressing global climate change.
He also thanked Congress for sending him an education bill, a transportation bill and a budget deal to sign late this year, and reiterated his commitment to fighting the Islamic State.
Then he opened the floor for questions. Some highlights:
- The difficulty of detecting terrorist threats like the one conducted in San Bernardino, Calif. “It’s not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter,” Obama said. “You don’t always see it. They’re not always communicating publicly.” But the government is working to strengthen information-sharing both between agencies and with other countries, he said.
- The question of mandatory monitoring of social media posts by visa applicants. The president distinguished between public posts (which are constantly monitored, he said, including in the visa review process) and private communications — which couldn’t be monitored in their entirety, both for feasibility issues and because of concerns over civil liberties.
- The potential use of executive authority to close Guantanamo over Congress’ objections. Congress has consistently moved to block Obama from transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., but Obama said he is going to present a plan to close the facility and is “not going to automatically assume that Congress says no.” And until they do say no, he won’t comment on using his executive authority to close Guantanamo. “Every once in a while they’ll surprise you,” the president said of Congress.
- The role of the U.S. in the Middle East, especially in regard to regime change. In Egypt, Obama said, it wasn’t the U.S. but the Egyptian people who prompted Hosni Mubarak’s fall; in Libya, the entire international community failed, Obama said. And in Syria, the idea that the U.S. would “stand by and say nothing” would be contrary to U.S. values. Bashar Assad will have to leave for Syria to reach a peace, Obama said.
- The impact of Paul Ryan stepping into the role of speaker of the House. Obama gave Ryan credit for shifting Congress away from brinkmanship and back toward a more typical dynamic. “We’ve gotten kind of used to last-minute crises and shutdown threats,” Obama said, but the passage of a spending and tax bill this week was more representative of how U.S. democracy should work. He said he’s now hoping to stitch together congressional support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and for criminal justice reform.
- The possibility that a Republican successor could undo progress toward fighting climate change. Obama jokingly pointed out that he would have been supporting a Democratic nominee no matter what happened in the Paris negotiations, and says he does expect a Democrat to win in 2016. He also argued that changing market dynamics will help the fight against climate change. “There’s a big monetary incentive to getting this right,” Obama said.
- The question of whether Bashar Assad must leave power for ISIS to be defeated. Obama said again he’s committed to destroying the Islamic State, and said reducing instability in the region is key to that goal. Syria’s civil war has to end, and Assad must leave, for that kind of stability to be achieved, Obama said.
- The principles he’d use to reduce mass incarceration. “I strongly support the Senate legislation that’s already been put forward,” Obama said. The key is pairing sentencing reform with strategies to reduce recidivism and support ex-offenders, he said. But he also noted that he can only directly address federal prisons, and can’t directly reduce the number of individuals incarcerated at the state level.
Then he headed out — telling the crowd of reporters, “OK, everybody, I’ve got to get to Star Wars.”
After the conference, Obama is scheduled to travel to San Bernardino, Calif., to visit families of victims of this month’s terrorist attack, before heading to Hawaii for his annual family vacation.
You can watch the full news conference here: