WASHINGTON — At the end of a difficult year, President Obama said Friday that he's bullish about 2014.
The last year for Obama has been marked by controversies over the National Security Agency's surveillance program, a disastrous roll out of the website for his signature health care law, and nose-diving poll numbers.
His hopes to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's gun laws after last year's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School failed to gain traction, as did his call for a retooling of the nation's immigration laws.
Yet Obama, even as he was pressed by reporters to reflect on a tough year, repeatedly said he is looking forward to 2014.
"We're poised to do really good things," said Obama, at a year-end news conference before heading to Hawaii with his family for their their annual winter vacation.
The president offered his rosy outlook just hours after the Commerce Department announced on Friday that the U.S. economy grew in the third quarter by a surprising 4.1%.
"We head into next year with an economy that is stronger than it was when we started the year," Obama said. "I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America."
When asked if this has been the worst year of his presidency, Obama said "that's not how I think about it." He added that he has had political difficulties throughout his political career.
"We have had ups and we have had downs," Obama said.
He brushed off questions about his poll numbers, which are are near an all-time low for his nearly five years in office
"If I was interested in polling, I wouldn't have run for president," Obama insisted. He added, "I knew and will continue to know that there are going to be ups and downs."
Obama argued that the economy is improving, and that more people are benefiting from his health care law. He suggested that both developments would improve his political standing.
The president also said there is room for some agreement with Republicans in Congress on issues like immigration. At the same time, he made clear that he was unwilling to negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling, which has a February deadline. Obama has repeatedly said the debt ceiling should be raised with no strings attached.
"It's probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship, but it's also fair to say that we are not condemned to endless gridlock," Obama said. "2014 needs to be a year of action."
The president described the health care roll-out as his biggest mistake: "Since I'm in charge, obviously we screwed it up."
In looking forward to 2014, Obama said: "You know, the end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see, what can you do better next year -- that's how I intend to approach it. I'm sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun."
Obama spoke with care when asked about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden being treated as a "criminal," and sidestepped whether he should be offered amnesty or a pardon for his actions.
He acknowledged that Snowden, who released a treasure trove of information about the NSA's spying program, may have spurred an important conversation about U.S. intelligence practices.
But he added that Snowden's actions have caused "unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy."
Obama also addressed a bipartisan effort in Congress to imposes new sanctions on Iran, even as he attempts to get Tehran to curb its nuclear program through negotiations.
He said if "we're serious about negotiations we have to create an atmosphere" where Iran will take action it may be uncomfortable with.
He said he understands it may be good politics to pursue more sanctions, but it's not an effective way to get to the U.S. government's desired end goal of stopping Iran from being a "weaponized," or nuclear-armed country
"It is my goal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." He added, "I'll work with Congress to put more pressure on Iran, but there is no reason to do it now."
The U.S. and Iran came to an interim agreement earlier this month, in which the international community will gain greater oversight of Iran's nuclear program. In exchange, Tehran was given less roughly $7 billion in sanctions relief over the next six months.
"We lose nothing during this negotiation period," Obama said.
Obama also addressed the makeup of the presidential delegation he's sending to represent the United States at the the Winter Olympics.
He did not dispute that the group, which includes three gay members, was designed in part to send a message about anti-gay laws in Russia.
Citing the inclusion of tennis legend Billie Jean King and champion skater Brian Boitano, Obama said they are world-class athletes of great character "who also happen to be members of the LGBT community."
He said: "You should take that for what it's worth … When it comes to the Olympics and athletic performance we don't make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation."
Asked why he isn't going, Obama noted that he has not traveled to previous Olympics.
"Me attending the Olympics, particularly at a time when we've got all the other stuff that people have been talking about, is going to be tough, although I would love to do it," he said. "I'll be going to a lot of Olympic Games post- presidency. "
Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is leading the U.S. delegation to Sochi.
Vice President Biden led the U.S. delegation to the last Winter Olympics, in Vancouver in 2010. First lady Michelle Obama did the honors at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.