By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If U.S. President Barack Obama is feeling the pain from a rough year at the office, he did a great job of covering it up on Friday.
Before boarding Air Force One for a vacation in Hawaii, the president gave a year-end news conference with a spring in his step, buoyed by a surge in U.S. economic growth and newly confident after having stymied his Republican critics with unilateral actions on immigration and Cuba.
Bantering with reporters, granting questions only to women and wishing all the Hawaiian Christmas greeting, "Mele Kalikimaka," Obama appeared energized and exuded an I'm-not-done-yet attitude.
"There is no doubt that we can enter into the new year with renewed confidence that America's making significant strides where it counts," he said.
The Washington Post declared recently that Obama had "the worst year in Washington," a grim assessment after the president struggled to respond to a variety of foreign and domestic crises from beheadings by Islamic State to Russia's aggression against Ukraine to racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
He was quickly labeled a lame duck after his Democrats' dramatic mid-term election losses to resurgent Republicans in early November. Already a multitude of potential candidates are jockeying for position in the looming fight to succeed him in 2016.
Obama's actions in the weeks since the elections, however, have foiled the conventional wisdom that his presidency is largely over.
He bypassed a divided Congress to reform immigration on his own, ignored congressional critics this week by moving to normalize relations with Cold War-era foe Cuba, and reached a compromise deal with Republicans on a $1.1 trillion spending bill to the chagrin of some Democrats.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Obama's improved mood has been stronger economic growth and job creation after the long tepid period that marked much of a presidency that began in early 2009 when the economy was mired in deep recession.
It is an old truth of American politics that presidents have a greater ability to strike compromises and go against their party's orthodoxy in their last two years in office, when they don't have to face the voters again.
Obama's message to Republicans, who will control both houses of Congress in January, was that he will be willing to compromise with them but will insist that he gets something he wants in return.
Obama cited tax reform as an area of potential compromise, and as part of any deal he raised again the issue of getting Congress to approve funds for infrastructure projects, a demand Republicans have repeatedly rejected.
"In order for their initiatives to become law I'm going to have to sign off," he said. "And that means they have to take into account the issues that I care about, just as I'm going to take into account the issues that they care about."
The president felt no compunction about publicly calling out Sony Pictures for withdrawing a comedy movie, "The Interview," because of a massive hacking attack that the United States on Friday blamed on North Korea.
"I wish they had spoken to me first," Obama said of Sony executives. "I would've told them, 'do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.'"
Behind the scenes, Obama privately acknowledges that he has six or nine months to make progress on his agenda before the campaign to replace him kicks into high gear and Americans begin to look past him.
But at his press conference, he beseeched Americans not to do that just yet.
"My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter. And I'm looking forward to it," he said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Frances Kerry)