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Three Big Questions for Obama's Year-End Press Conference

The White House is viewing this as a kind of victory lap after an eventful lame-duck session.
Image: President Obama Makes Statement On Grand Jury Decision On Ferguson Shooting
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement following the announcement of the grand jury's decision in the shooting death of unnamed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The grand jury has decided that officer Darren Wilson will not be charged in the fatal shooting. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Alex Wong / Getty Images

At 1:30pm ET, President Barack Obama will hold his last press conference of the year. Six weeks ago, this would have been an exercise in trying to prove his relevance after a brutal midterm defeat for his party and a rebuke to Obama himself. Now, the White House is viewing this as a kind of victory lap. Obama has clearly proved he can steer the agenda in the last 30 days by pushing through executive action on immigration, a change in Cuba policy and a $1.1 trillion spending bill. Of course, the White House also is starting to get comfortable trumpeting the economy (expect a lot of that today too). And remember, the year-end press conference last year was when he promised that 2014 would be a “year of action.” He’ll likely be asked questions today on his newest decision to begin the normalization of relations with Cuba, on the CIA Senate intelligence report, on his executive actions on immigration, and on race relations and policing reforms in the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island decisions. But here’s three other big questions we’ll be watching for today.

Question One: What does a “proportional response” to the Sony hack look like?

The White House says it is planning a “proportional response” to the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the administration has dubbed “a serious national security matter.” Here’s what that’s code for: “We don’t know yet how exactly to react.” The administration is caught between conflicting objectives here. On the one hand, they need to ensure that the response is strong enough to dissuade other enemies from trying this kind of cyber-attack. And, after the nixing of “The Interview” movie, a lot of folks just have a bad taste in their mouth – because isn’t freedom of expression one of the basic principles that makes America, well, America? But on the other hand, how aggressive does the most powerful country in the world want to get in defending a Hollywood movie, especially when a big response would only serve to elevate North Korea? This White House, just like the last one, is always concerned about overreacting and giving too much recognition to North Korea’s plays for attention. Plus, the U.S. has limited options to punish a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations or major trade. Bottom line: The White House doesn’t know yet what the best strategy may be, and – because of the high-wire intelligence aspect of this murky attack– the general public may not know about the eventual reaction for a long time.

Question Two: What, specifically, does he say about working with Republicans in Congress?

For all his “pen and phone” talk this past year, we’ve noted that Obama now will HAVE to work with the new Republican Congress if he wants to get even the most modest agenda items passed. And if he wants to keep any of his recent decisions alive (funding an embassy in Cuba, allowing his deportation relief program to go forward, getting actual results on international climate change standards, etc.), he’ll have to fight the GOP every step of the way. So, other than the general soundbites about collegiality and the common goal of helping middle class Americans, what will the president say today about actually working with the Hill in the coming year? Will he issue a list of goals for the 114th Congress? Will he focus more on the areas most ripe for compromise, like trade deals? Or will he take a more combative tone? Does he open the door on tax reform?

Question Three: How will the president govern for two more years when the nation is clamoring for a new direction?

One thing’s for sure: the president’s aggressive style in the last month has ignored big-picture polling data since the election. First, voters gave Democrats the boot and gifted Republicans their largest House majority in 83 years. Then, a majority – 55 percent – told NBC/WSJ pollsters that the president either didn’t get the message sent by the elections, or that he DID get the message but isn’t making any adjustments to his programs or policies to reflect what voters said they wanted. And this might be the most telling number: Just a quarter of Americans say the next president should take an approach similar to Obama’s, and that includes less than half of DEMOCRATS. While his individual policies may get majority support – like policing reforms, an immigration overhaul and the normalization of relations with Cuba – the overwhelming message of this year is that the public wants a change of direction. What will Obama do in his remaining two years to reflect that desire – or does he press forward with his current style in the not not-so-lame-duck, election setbacks be damned?

Other nuggets from our most recent NBC/WSJ poll

  • Only 7% of all respondents in the poll approve of BOTH Obama’s job performance and Congress’, while 39% disapprove of BOTH of them.
  • 73% of Hispanic women say they could see themselves supporting Hillary in 2016, versus just 47% of Hispanic men.
  • And get this: Just 8% of Republicans say the country is headed in the right direction, despite the fact that they won the midterm elections just a month ago.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

With Congress adjourned and with Obama off to Hawaii for the holidays, your morning First Read column will be on hiatus until the new year. See you then.

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