By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama declined to engage in a bout of political soul-searching on Friday and said that despite a botched health care rollout and stalled legislative initiatives, his year had not been all that bad.
He acknowledged setbacks but declined to dwell on them at a year-end news conference in the White House briefing room hours before escaping Washington for two weeks of what he described as "sleep and sun" in Hawaii.
Asked if this was "the worst year" of his presidency, he conceded that "we have had ups and we have had downs."
Even so, he said, "I think this room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences" during his nearly five years in office.
While saying 2014 should be a "year of action," he did not hint at any ambitious agenda. As his top priorities, he mentioned getting Congress to extend unemployment benefits for people out-of-work and raising the minimum wage.
Beyond that, his wish list included avoiding a debt ceiling fracas with Congress in the spring when the nation's borrowing limit must be raised.
Obama's reluctance to engage in self-analysis contrasted with his last news conference on November 14, which was filled with apologies about the failures of Obamacare.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll puts Obama's approval rating at 38 percent, while other polls put him in the low 40s. This is in the danger zone for a president who is trying to help his Democratic Party gain seats in the mid-term elections next year.
"There's a real frustration with politicians in general and Obama certainly bears the brunt of that, but it's also the rocky launch of the Affordable Care Act that bears his name," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark.
AGENDA FELL APART
With an improving U.S. economy, fixes to the glitch-prone healthcare website and some strategic staff changes, Obama aides believe 2014 could be a far better year than 2013, where the pitfalls were so many that the Washington Post declared Obama had not just his worst year, but the "worst year in Washington" of any politician.
Obama began the year with great expectations, talking up the need for an immigration overhaul and ways to address climate change in an activist speech to mark the start of his second term last January.
Much of his agenda fell apart in partisan battles with congressional Republicans.
Overseas, he helped achieve agreements with Syria to give up chemical weapons and for Iran to halt its nuclear program, but the deals had potential diplomatic problems that could undermine them.
On Iran, Obama said he realized some senators want to "look tough" on Iran but insisted there was no need for their move to add new sanctions on Tehran if it does not abide by an interim deal.
Obama's State of the Union speech in late January will give him a chance to set an agenda for the year and establish a narrative for Democrats heading into the congressional elections next November, when the party will be fighting to hold on to their Senate majority and gain seats in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"FRESH LEGS" AT WHITE HOUSE
"They've got to put their heads down and not get distracted by polls and figure out what their agenda is and execute it," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the White House. "I don't think ultimately it's that complicated."
Obama said he expects to make more staff changes early in the new year to add to some he has already announced. "People get worn out. Sometimes you need fresh legs," he said.
A key appointment was bringing in John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and led Obama's presidential transition team in late 2008-early 2009.
Democratic officials expect Podesta to help Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, bring some order to the White House and be the bad cop to McDonough's good cop.
Obama and his aides see some reason to be optimistic as the tough year lurches to a halt.
They believe repairs to the troubled Affordable Care Act are slowly but surely fixing glitches in the HealthCare.gov website, removing this controversy from being front-page news.
A budget deal that Congress approved was also welcome news to Obama.
"It's probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship," said Obama, "but it's also fair to say that we're not condemned to endless gridlock.
"Hopefully, folks have learned their lesson in terms of brinksmanship coming out of the government shutdown."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Fred Barbash and Ken Wills)