President Obama closed out what was arguably the rockiest year of his presidency by suggesting his troubled health care law has turned a corner, despite persistent and controversial changes in its implementation.
"The basic structure of that law is working," he claimed Friday.
In an end-of-year press conference, Obama downplayed the numerous scandals and setbacks his administration has faced, and battled lawmakers predicting ObamaCare's eventual collapse. He said enrollment has rapidly picked up in recent weeks. He said more than 1 million Americans have selected plans through the federal and state health care exchanges since Oct. 1.
"Millions of Americans, despite the problems with the website, are now poised to be covered by quality affordable health insurance come New Year's Day," he said, adding, "That is a big deal."
Obama claimed more than a half-million signed up in the first three weeks of December. That would mark a big jump over end-of-November numbers showing 365,000 had signed up. In claiming "millions" would be covered on Jan. 1, he was also likely factoring in the estimated 3.9 million people who the administration says have qualified for coverage under expanded Medicaid.
An estimated 4 million people, however, have seen their policies canceled.
The president is jetting off to Hawaii for his annual Christmas vacation Friday night. But before he departed, his administration made yet another major change to the health care law to deal with those individuals.
In response to people losing their insurance plans due to ObamaCare's new standards, the administration announced Thursday that those who lost their coverage could skirt the law's individual mandate -- and could opt to purchase bare-bones policies if they want. Those so-called "catastrophic" coverage plans were previously available only to people under 30, but the administration is now opening them up to people who got cancellation notices.
"The health law is like a Jenga game -- the administration keeps yanking out pieces, and ultimately nothing can keep it from collapsing," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in response. As Republican lawmakers jeered at the news, insurance industry representatives warned that the latest decision could further disrupt the market.
Asked about that change, though, the president said it only applied to a "subset" of people. "They don't go to the core of the law," he said.
Obama held the press conference at the close of a difficult year. His approval ratings are at or near the lowest of his presidency -- this week's Fox News poll showed just 41 percent of voters approve of the job he's doing, only a notch better than his low of 40 percent.
Driving the discontent, among other controversies, has been the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Obama again acknowledged serious problems with the technical rollout of HealthCare.gov. "Since I'm in charge, obviously we screwed it up," he said.
The main site was down for part of the day on Friday. Obama said that next year he'll make "appropriate adjustments," without clarifying further.
Obama, though, touted economic progress made over the last year and predicted 2014 could be a "breakthrough year."
A senior administration official told Fox News that the president will do a series of domestic events on the economy and other domestic topics in early-to-mid January in the run-up to his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. Topics he'll push include extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.
The president on Friday acknowledged, but appeared to brush off, some of the setbacks of the past year including over stalled immigration legislation. Asked if he had the worst year of his presidency, he said: "That's not how I think about it."
He also defended the embattled National Security Agency's surveillance practices. He said he'd be making a "pretty definitive statement" on the agency in January. But he said: "We need this intelligence. We can't unilaterally disarm."