By Carrie Dann, NBC News
President Barack Obama is holding his final press conference of 2013, capping a year dominated by sagging approval ratings and controversies over his signature health care law and his administration’s domestic surveillance programs.
Obama began the press conference by touting recent economic news, saying, “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”
The president cited new data that shows that the gross domestic product grew at a 4.1 percent annual rate during the year’s third quarter, the fastest pace in almost two years.
But questions are sure focus on the president’s sagging approval ratings and controversies over his signature health care law and his administration’s domestic surveillance programs.
While the administration has cited dramatic improvements in the troubled HealthCare.gov web site, Obama is still dogged by criticism of the numerous delays and exceptions tacked on to the law since its rocky October implementation began.
Obama touted recent enrollment numbers, saying that “millions of Americans, despite the problems with the website are now poised to be covered” under the ACA.
In the hours before the press conference, the web site for the online health care marketplace appeared to be down, displaying a message that “we’re currently performing scheduled maintenance. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said the outage is due to an error during routine maintenance and that “the site will be up and running again soon.”
On Thursday night, the administration announced that it will not impose penalties on individuals whose insurance plans had been cancelled under the new ACA guidelines and who do not have alternative coverage by January 1. Those whose plans were cancelled but are not eligible for subsidies will also be able to use the law’s “hardship exemption” to buy a skeletal catastrophic coverage plan.
It’s the latest in a series of modifications to the program that the insurance industry says could undermine the law and political opponents call administrative overstep.
December 23 is the deadline for applicants to register for a health care plan that goes into effect on January 1.
Continued concerns about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance practices – first revealed by Edward Snowden — are also sure to come up during the press conference, Obama’s first since November 14.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the bulk collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional, labeling the program “almost-Orwellian technology.”
A presidential task force report released this week recommended that the NSA dramatically modify its practice of collecting Americans’ phone records by requiring that the telephone companies themselves hold the information rather than agency itself. If implemented, the advisory panel’s recommendations would also make it harder for the government to seek permission to search those records.
The White House has said it will consider these unbinding recommendations, although the administration has already rejected one idea – to split the NSA’s leadership and allow a civilian to head the agency.
The year’s controversies have taken a marked toll on the president’s approval rating.
An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll in early December showed that just 43 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while 54 percent disapprove. At the beginning of 2013, that split was 52 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving.
This story was originally published on Fri Dec 20, 2013 10:46 AM EST