U.S. President Barack Obama praised the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba on Friday but said he doesn’t expect it to bring overnight change on the island, a quick end to the U.S. economic embargo or the likelihood that he will soon visit the communist nation.
“This is still a regime that represses its people,” Obama said at a year-end news conference two days after the historic announcement that he was moving to end the half century of Cold War acrimony with Havana. He said he hopes to visit Cuba at some point in his life but that he is not at the stage yet of going or hosting Cuban President Raul Castro in Washington.
Instead, Obama said the change in policy should give the U.S. a greater opportunity to have influence on Cuba and reflects his belief that 50 years of isolation haven’t worked. He said the embargo should end but he didn’t anticipate it soon.
“We will be in a position to respond to whatever action they take the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world when they do things that we think are wrong,” Obama said. “There may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply.”
Cuba was one of many issues that Obama addressed concerning a year he saw as basically positive, despite a series of foreign policy crisis and major defeats for his Democratic party in midterm elections.
Obama also said on Friday that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport crude oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast would only nominally benefit American consumers and workers.
“There is very little impact — nominal impact — on U.S. gas prices, what the average American consumer cares about,” Obama told reporters during an end-of-year press conference.
Construction of the pipeline would create a “couple thousand” jobs, but there are better ways to create long-term, paying jobs for American workers by investing in infrastructure, Obama added.
But he also left the door open when asked whether he’ll veto any Keystone XL bill sent to his desk by the new Republican Congress.
The president replied: “I’ll see what they do.”
The Republicans have said a Keystone bill will be their No. 1 priority in January.
Obama cites ‘Year of Action’
Obama declared 2014 “a breakthrough year for America,” putting aside the fits and starts of the past 12 months to focus on achievements and the prospect of compromise with his political foes who are taking control of Congress.
The news conference came at the end of what Obama titled his “Year of Action,” one in which Congress failed to take up most of his agenda and he turned to looking for ways to act on his own, most recently on immigration. Republicans cried foul at that tactic, accusing Obama of overstepping his authority, and voters didn’t seem to think much of the strategy, either, giving the president low marks in public opinion polls.
On Friday, the president acknowledged many unanticipated crises in the past year but said he enters 2015 with renewed confidence that “America is making strides where it counts.” He said he intends to make sure the economy, government and justice system work for everyone.
He ticked off the year’s improvements, citing lower unemployment and a rising number of Americans covered by health insurance and a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba. On climate change, the touted his own executive action and a Chinese agreement to combat global warming. He also noted that on Friday the Treasury Department announced it had sold the last investment related to the Wall Street and auto bailouts. And he said America’s combat mission in Afghanistan would soon be over.
“Take any metric that you want, America’s resurgence is real. We are better off,” said Obama, who spoke before leaving for vacation in Hawaii.
Wants to work with the new Congress
He will return to Washington with both congressional chambers under Republican control — a first since he’s been in the White House — and attention turning to the 2016 race to replace him. While much of his agenda will face a dead end on Capitol Hill, Obama aides say he’ll look for areas of compromise on issues like trade and taxes and continue to act on his own where he can.
“I’m being sincere when I say I want to work with this new Congress to get things done,” Obama said.
Obama said he has been speaking to House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about how they can make progress.
“They are serious about wanting to get things done. The tax area is one area where we can get things done,” Obama said. He said he wanted to see more fairness and simplicity, but he cautioned, “The devil’s in the details.”
Speaking shortly after the FBI said North Korea was behind the hack, Obama said he felt Sony “made a mistake” in shelving the satirical film about a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader. He said the U.S. would respond to North Korea’s action “in a place and manner and time that we choose.”
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