Here’s What Obama Wants You to Know About Cuba, North Korea, and 2014

“All I want for Christmas is to take your questions,” said President Barack Obama on Friday afternoon, beginning his traditional, year-end press conference from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. That announcement was met with some muffled laughter from the assembled reporters; Obama is known for giving the press corps only limited opportunities to query him. The president quickly transitioned from seasonal frivolities to a quick recapitulation of the United States’ past 12 months. “In last year’s final press conference, I said that 2014 would be a year of action and would be a breakthrough year for America,” he noted. “And it has been,” he concluded, despite the numerous and often-unanticipated crises that unfolded around the world. But even though he termed 2014 as a breakout year, that description should not obscure the fact that “we have more work to do make sure our economy, our justice system, our government work not just for the few, but the many.”

Why was 2014 a breakout year, according to Obama?

Obama claimed the United States has made “significant strides where it counts.” Topping the list were “the steps we took early on to rescue our economy and rebuild it on a new foundation.” Those steps “helped make 2014 the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s,” he said. In the 57-months of economic recovery, U.S. businesses have created nearly 11 million new jobs. “Almost all the job growth that we’ve seen have been in full-time positions,” Obama continued, and “much of the recent pickup in job growth has been higher-paying industries.” And while his use of the word “much” is helpfully ambiguous, the most recent employment situation report did note that the job gains were broad based enough and big enough to support career creation.

The president highlighted the economic benefits of the boom in domestic natural gas production. He explained that the government’s bailout of the automobile industry was successfully concluded. On Friday morning, the Department of the Treasury announced that the government’s final shares in the auto lender Ally Financial would be sold, concluding its involvement in the industry’s recovery. And while the Treasury lost approximately $10 billion on the auto industry bailout, which also included aid to General Motors and Chrysler, the broader bank and auto bailout measure known as the Trouble Asset Relief Program, or TARP, brought taxpayers a tidy profit. And American automakers are on track for its strongest year since 2005. Obama also reminded Americans that thanks the Affordable Care Act 10 million people have gained health insurance, pushing the uninsured rate to near a record low. “Since the law passed, the price of health care has risen at its slowest rate in about 50 years,” he added, even though that assertion has some caveats. He noted that the government’s budget deficit has shrunk by two-thirds since he took office. “Meanwhile, around the world America’s leading,” Obama claimed, pointing to U.S. participation in the fight against ISIL, in checking Russian aggression in Ukraine, in combating Ebola, and in addressing climate change.

Unpacking the events of the past week — the cyber attack on Sony and the White House’s announcement that diplomatic relations with Cuba would restart — dominated the question-and-answer period.

Did Sony make the right decision in pulling the movie, The Interview?

Obama said Sony “made a mistake,” faulting the company for pulling the movie The Interview following last month’s cyberattack. The FBI released a statement on Friday naming North Korea the party responsible for stealing and leaking emails and social security numbers — a conclusion that surprised no one. After all, the hackers who stole the data from Sony threatened to attack screenings of The Interview, a comedy about the attempted assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un that ends with his potentially graphic death. “The world will be full of fear,” read the note from the hackers. “Remember the 11th of September 2001.”

In simple terms, Obama believes that Sony set a dangerous precedent by caving to the hackers’ demands. “I think they made a mistake. I wish they would have spoken to me first. I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern where you are intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks,’” the president said, his words echoing George W. Bush’s maxim: “Don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Obama argued that there cannot be “a society in which some dictator someplace starts imposing censorship here in the United States, because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like or news reports they don’t like.”

“They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond,” the president said, without giving any details of how his administration will handle the cyberattack. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

Are relations with Cuba going to progress smoothly from now on?

Even though the Cold War has been over for two decades and the Cuban economy is one of lines and shortages, the relationship between Cuba and the United States is still frosty. The ever-more controversial trade embargo remains. But on Wednesday, the Obama administration announced plans for normalizing relations, ending the last vestige of Cold War diplomacy and serving as the most significant change to the United States’ Cuban policy in 50 years — a stalemate that has outlasted 10 U.S. presidents. Three generations past the revolution, Cuban glasnost has begun.

President Barack Obama announced this week that “the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” meaning that diplomatic relations with the island nation will be resumed.

Normalizing relations with Cuba is not a popular position with many congressional Republicans, and even a few Democrats spoke out against Obama’s decision. And with controversy brewing in Washington, reporters pressed the president to defend this policy change. He rejected his critics who believe that the United States should keep Cuba diplomatically and economically isolated because of its poor humans rights record. Instead, Obama argued that the thaw would give American leaders more sway with the Cuban government. “I share the concerns of dissidents there and human rights activists that this is still a regime that represses its people,” he said at the news conference. Of course, easing economic sanctions needs an act of Congress.

Obama did acknowledge that Cuba would likely still take actions his administration and Congress opposes, but he claimed that is a common-enough occurrence in international relations.

Friday’s news conferences comes after a six-week period in which Obama has aggressively used his presidential powers: issuing an expansive executive order on immigration, renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba, inking a climate agreement with China, and pushing for regulations to keep the Internet free and open. “My presidency’s entering the fourth quarter,” he added. “Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Yet, he did tell reporters that he had a sincere desire to work the new, Republican-controlled Congress, noting that conversations with Republican leaderssuggested compromise was possible “I want to work with this new Congress to get things done,” the president said. “We’re going to disagree on some things, but there are going to be areas of agreement, and we’ve got to be able to make that happen, and that’s going to involve compromise once in a while.” He identified a reform of the U.S. tax code as a good place to begin.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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