US President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, December 20, 2013.
Obama: 'We've had ups and downs'
01:53 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: "We screwed it up," Obama says of health care website woes

He said the United States is heading into next year with a stronger economy

Obama's 41% approval rating in a new CNN/ORC poll ties a record low for him

Polls go up and down, President Obama says, while his concern is helping people

Washington CNN  — 

Citing economic progress and other achievements, President Barack Obama on Friday rejected the contention that 2013 was the worst year of his presidency.

Polls show Obama’s approval rating at record lows for the nearly five years he’s been in office, but he told reporters at a year-end news conference that his concern is whether things are getting better for the American people.

“If you’re measuring this by polls, my polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career,” Obama said. “If I was interested in polling, I wouldn’t have run for President.”

Instead, he cited continuing economic growth after the recession he inherited when he took office in January 2009 and other progress, such as more than 1 million people signing up for health insurance so far under the controversial reforms he championed.

“That is a big deal. That’s why I ran for this office,” Obama said.

Nagging controversies

Later in the news conference that lasted just over an hour, he shrugged off persistent questions about controversies involving Obamacare, government surveillance and other issues with a rudimentary summation of how he sees his administration’s role.

“We get this privilege for a pretty short period of time to do as much as we can for as many people as we can to help them live better lives,” Obama said.

At the end, he wished the assembled journalists happy holidays and walked out a few hours before the first family’s trip to Hawaii on Friday night.

Obama can’t be sad to see 2013 ending.

His legislative agenda outlined in his inauguration address last January after winning re-election and his State of the Union speech a few weeks later made little headway in the divided Congress.

Classified leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed details of U.S. surveillance efforts that raised questions about whether the government spied on its own people.

Then came the botched rollout in October of the new website.

Instead of cementing Obama’s legacy as the President who helped uninsured Americans get affordable health coverage, the dysfunctional website opened the 2010 Affordable Care Act to a new wave of attacks by Republicans seeking to dismantle the reforms.

Obama frustration

Obama acknowledged the website problems caused “great frustration,” but he rejected GOP claims the overall reform law was failing and should be scrapped.

Asked what was his biggest mistake of 2013, the President cited the website woes and accepted responsibility, saying: “Since I’m in charge, obviously we screwed it up.”

Another disappointment cited by the President was the inability to get any of his main legislative priorities of 2013 passed by Congress, and he called for 2014 to be a “year of action” on immigration reform, job creation, expanded background checks on gun purchasers and extending long-term unemployment benefits.

“We head into next year with an economy that’s stronger than it was at the start of the year,” Obama said. “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”

Noting a compromise budget agreement recently passed by Congress after two years of partisan impasses on government spending, Obama said: “It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship, but it’s also fair to say that we’re not condemned to endless gridlock.”

However, he refused to budge in his rejection of Republican calls for concessions in return for their agreement to increase the federal borrowing limit – known as the debt ceiling – when required as soon as early March.

“No, we’re not going to negotiate for Congress to pay bills that it has accrued,” Obama said. “It is not a negotiating tool.”

NSA snooping

Asked about the NSA surveillance, Obama defended the government collection of telephone metadata – records of the time and numbers called with no information on content – revealed by Snowden’s classified leaks.

He said he would make “a pretty definitive” decision in January on recommendations from an independent panel that advised stronger oversight and transparency for the surveillance network without dismantling it.

However, Obama added that “what is also clear from the public debate, people are concerned about the possibility of abuse,” such as someone listening in on their phone calls.

“This is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust,” he said, adding there had been no alleged instances of the NSA acting beyond its legal authority in the use of data it collects.

CNN’s Michael Martinez contributed to this report.