Five Takeaways from Obama's News Conference

The president ended the year with an aggressive stance on Sony, an all-female cast of reporters, and plenty of good cheer.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his speech to members of the media during his last news conference of the year.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama feels liberated from the political restraints of Washington--and it showed in his final news conference of the year.

A self-described "energized" and "excited" president wrapped up the first half of his second term, moving, as he put it, into the "fourth quarter" of his presidency. "Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter. And I'm looking forward to it," he said, before turning to reporters for questions.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Cyber-attacks will not be tolerated

Obama took a hawkish stance towards cyber-attacks on the U.S., and said Sony Pictures' decision not to release "The Interview" was "a mistake." Sony, he said, should have called him before making its decision. "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States," he said, making a full-throated argument against self-censorship.

The FBI said Friday that North Korea was behind the studio hacking. Obama offered an ominous, if not detailed, warning to the perpetrators: "We will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose," he said. "It's not something that I will announce here today at a press conference."

2. He's building a legacy

The president kicked off the news conference with an upbeat assessment of the American economy, rolling through a list of positive data points, from low gas prices to job growth to rising wages.

"Take any metric that you want, America's resurgence is real," he said. "We are better off. I've always said that recovering from the crisis of 2008 was our first order of business. And on that business, America's outperformed all of our other competitors."

Obama's ability to pull the country out of the economic recession he inherited will be one of the primary measures by which historians and economists evaluate his presidency. It's pretty clear Obama and his team have already started their final campaign–for the history books.

3. Cuba is worth a risk 

Obama is confident that change will come to Cuba. He's just not exactly sure what it will look like and suspects it could take quite some time. 

Mapping out where the country will be by the end of his presidency is "unrealistic," said Obama, noting that he has no immediate plans to visit the island.

But as he did earlier this week, Obama argued that change begets change, and that liberalizing relations gives the U.S. a better chance of influencing the country's future.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they take, at any given time, actions that we think are a problem," Obama said. "And we will be in a position to respond to whatever actions they take, the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world, when they do things we think are wrong.

"We will be in a better position, I think, to actually have some influence, and there may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply."

Still, Obama acknowledged that only Congress can end the trade embargo against Cuba and that it won't happen without a "healthy debate." As for the Castros, Fidel and Raul, the nation's current president? "I don't know how this relationship will develop over the next several years,"  Obama said.

4. Things look dim for Keystone

Asked whether he would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a decision that's been languishing at the State Department for most of his presidency, Obama focused knocking down the economic arguments for the $8 billion project.

The pipeline, he said, won't have a "significant impact" on oil prices. The economic benefits would largely go to the Canadian oil companies who are currently shipping the oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast by rail or truck. And it will create just "a couple thousand" temporary jobs, which, he noted, is far fewer than the "hundreds of thousands of jobs or a million jobs" that would be created by the kind of infrastructure redevelopment legislation he favors. 

"There's been this tendency to really hype this thing as some magic formula and–to what ails the U.S. economy. And it's hard to see on paper where exactly they're getting that  information from," he said.

For an oil industry that's spent years reading the tea leaves on a Keystone decision, that's a pretty strong brew to swallow.

5. A moment for equality 

The president took questions only from female reporters, a striking decision that quickly became the talk of social media. “See how newsy press conferences can be when women ask the questions?” PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill tweeted.

The selection, aides said, was intentional. “There are many women from a variety of news organizations who day-in and day-out do the hard work of covering the president of the United States," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement. "As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the president’s closely watched, end of the year news conference."

Why Obama Only Took Questions From Female Reporters