WASHINGTON — Tempering his historic Cuba policy shift with a dose of realism, President Barack Obama said Friday that change may not come quickly to the communist island. He suggested Congress will keep the U.S. economic embargo in place until lawmakers can gauge the pace of progress in the "hermetically sealed society."
Still, Obama's surprise announcement this week that the U.S. was ending its Cold War diplomatic freeze with Cuba appeared to have contributed to energizing the president as he closes a difficult sixth year in office.
"My presidency is entering the fourth quarter," Obama said at a year-end White House news conference shortly before leaving for a two-week Hawaiian vacation. "Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter."
On domestic matters, Obama was measured about the prospect of forging compromises with the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill, and he warned the GOP that he would block efforts to dismantle his health care law or further water down banking regulations. He made no commitment to sign the first bill incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to take up: approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Obama said the project's value has been exaggerated.
The president spoke shortly after the FBI formally accused North Korea of hacking Sony Pictures Entertainment. Obama promised to respond to the cyberattack "in a place and manner and time that we choose." But he also criticized Sony for shelving the satirical film about a plot to assassinate North Korea's leader that sparked the attack, saying the entertainment company "made a mistake."
Despite Obama's upbeat mood as 2014 comes to a close, his sixth year in office has been one of fits and starts. His agenda was frequently overshadowed by a broad array of crises, including the rise of Middle East militants, Russia's actions in in Ukraine, a surge of unaccompanied minors to the U.S.-Mexico border from the south and an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that brought fears to this country. Obama's Democratic Party suffered sweeping losses in a midterm election where the president was deemed too unpopular to participate.
Yet Obama pointed to the decline in the nation's unemployment rate, increased economic growth and numerous states and cities enacting minimum wage increases the president has championed.
Obama also seemed to find his footing after the election, unveiling executive actions on immigration and striking a surprise climate change deal with China, both of which were greeted by accusations of presidential overreach from Republicans. On Wednesday, he unilaterally ended the Cold War-era diplomatic freeze with Cuba, the communist island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
The policy shift with Cuba is among the most substantial foreign policy actions of Obama's presidency. But he said he doesn't expect decades of dictatorship on the island to end quickly and said he shared Cuban dissidents' concerns about the country's poor human rights record.
"This is still a regime that represses its people," Obama said. He expressed an interest in visiting Cuba at some point in his life, but suggested that visit might have to wait until after his presidency.
Still, Obama shared an unusual level of detail about a friendly private phone call earlier this week with Cuban President Raul Castro. The call marked the first substantive discussion between the leaders of the two nations in more than 50 years.
Obama said he opened the call with a 15-minute statement, then apologized for the length of his remarks. The Cuban leader replied that Obama was "still a young man and you still have the chance to break Fidel's record: He once spoke for seven hours straight," Obama said, referring to Cuba's longtime dictator Fidel Castro.
The president said the Cuban leader then delivered an opening statement at least twice as long as his. "I was able to say, 'Obviously, it runs in the family.'"
The president was cautious in setting specific goals for how much progress he expected Cuba to make by the end of his tenure, but said "change is going to come to Cuba." Still, he suggested Congress was unlikely to quickly repeal the full U.S. economic embargo on Cuba.
"People are going to want to see how does this move forward before there's any serious debate about whether or not we would make major shifts in the embargo," Obama said.
During his 17-day break in Hawaii, Obama is expected to spend some time crafting his State of the Union address, in which he will outline his goals for working with the GOP-led Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has invited Obama to address a joint session of Congress on Jan. 20.
The president has already raised the prospect of reaching accords with Republicans on trade, which is a rare area of agreement between the White House and the GOP. And Obama said his staff would be talking to Republicans in the coming weeks to start work on overhauling the nation's complicated tax code, though both sides acknowledge that their differences on the complex issue run deep.
"I'm being sincere when I say I want to work with this new Congress to get things done," Obama said.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Jim Kuhnhenn and Darlene Superville contributed to this report. Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC