Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday hailed major legislation passed by Congress in the lame-duck session and said the progress showed "we're not doomed to endless gridlock."
At a year-end news conference before leaving town for his delayed holiday, Obama emphasized the achievements of his administration and the Democratic-led Congress while also acknowledging that tough issues still face the nation in the coming year.
Obama later departed for Hawaii to join the first family for the holidays, and both the Senate and House adjourned for the year. A new Congress with Republicans controlling the House and holding a stronger minority in the Senate convenes on January 5, 2011.
During his departure, Obama decided to surprise the White House press corps. While walking from the Oval Office to the presidential Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House, the president made a turn and then walked over to reporters, producers and crews and shook as many of their hands as possible.
He wished the startled and shivering members of the press, who had been waiting for nearly half an hour in the cold, a "Merry Christmas" and asked if anyone was coming with him to Hawaii.
It was an unprecedented move for the president. While he always waves goodbye and sometimes will shake hands with visitors who line up to watch his departure, he has never "worked the rope line" for those who cover him every day.
Obama, carrying what appeared to be a card in his hand, seemed enthusiastic as he handed out holiday greetings.
During his news conference, Obama said, "I think it's fair to say that this has been the most productive post-election period we've had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we've had in generations."
He later added: "If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock. We've shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together."
Since the November 2 congressional elections that Obama labeled a "shellacking" for himself and Democrats, Congress has passed a series of bills on major issues that appeared mired in legislative stalemate.
Those included a compromise worked out by Obama and Senate Republican leaders to extend Bush-era tax cuts to everyone for two more years while also extending unemployment benefits for 13 months and reducing the payroll tax by 2 percentage points for a year, all intended to bolster the slow recovery from economic recession.
Earlier Wednesday, Obama signed a bill repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay and lesbian soldiers from the military, and the Senate approved a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. In addition, both the House and Senate passed a bill to provide medial treatment and compensation to first responders of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York, and both chambers agreed on a resolution authorizing government funding through March 4.
Obama called the lame-duck session "a season of progress for the American people" that reflected the message voters sent in November for Democrats and Republicans to work together.
At the same time, Obama said, deep ideological differences exist and he said that he expects "a robust debate" on government spending and deficit reduction when a new Congress convenes in January, with Republicans in control of the House and holding a stronger minority in the Senate.
Obama also cited issues left unresolved, mentioning the failure by Congress to pass an immigration bill that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children as "maybe my biggest disappointment."
On a personal note, Obama responded to a question about gay marriage by saying his feelings on the issue are "evolving constantly," though at the moment he still favors "strong civil unions" for gay and lesbian couples, providing them with the same legal rights and protections as heterosexual couples.
Most of his comments were in praise of the accomplishments of the final days of the congressional session, in which legislators and Obama stayed in Washington five days longer than planned to wrap up work on several major issues.
Obama praised the Senate's passage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, early Wednesday, calling it "the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades."
He also said the tax and benefits deal negotiated with Senate Republicans "will make a difference for millions of students and parents and workers, and for people still looking for work."
"What we've shown is we don't have to agree on 100 percent to get things done that enhance the lives of families all across America," Obama said.
CNN's Dan Lothian contributed to this report.