President Barack Obama says, as he enters the final two years of his presidency and with the economy stronger at any time since taking office in 2009, he is able to focus on what he calls "long-term projects" in domestic and foreign affairs.
During an interview with U.S. public media organization NPR, Obama also said he won’t rule out improved relations with Iran, and cited Myanmar and Tunisia as examples where democracy has a chance to advance.
Obama said his executive actions in recent weeks on immigration and Cuba were the result of years of work. He said he had foreseen 2014 as a breakthrough year and, after six years in office and an improving economy, he finally had the opportunity to deal with some thorny issues:
"But, at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we’ve done is now beginning to bear fruit,” he said.
“And, it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn’t always have the time or capacity to get to earlier in my presidency,” Obama added.
He said he now wants to focus on “long-term projects” such as making sure all Americans benefit from an improving economy.
On the international front, “even as we’re managing ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and trying to roll them back and ultimately defeat them, even as we’ve been executing the draw-down in Afghanistan in a responsible way, the moves like the Cuba diplomatic initiative are ones that I want to make sure I continue to pursue partly because, frankly, it’s easier for a president to do at the end of his term than a president coming in,” Obama said.
When asked if he envisioned opening an embassy in Tehran as he restores diplomatic ties with Cuba, Obama said the two countries are different.
He said, after 50 years of the same policy, it was time for a change with a tiny country that does not pose a significant threat. He called Iran a large, sophisticated country with a history of state-sponsorship of terrorism that is hostile to Israel and trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
The president said improved relations with Tehran will hinge on a verifiable nuclear agreement. Over time, he said, sanctions could be removed, Iran could be reintegrated into the international community and that would serve as the basis for improving relations.
The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, after Iranian activists seized the U.S. embassy and took its staff hostage. The United States and five other nations (Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany) have been negotiating for a peaceful, civilian Iranian nuclear program. Iran has long denied its program has a military purpose.
Despite reaching an interim deal in November 2013, the two sides have failed to reach a comprehensive agreement, and extended the talks into next year with a new deadline at the end of June.
As for advancing democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law, Obama pointed to Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Tunisia where transformations appear to be underway.
He said these are countries are where the United States can be “opportunistic” and do everything it can to help.
But, when it comes to nation-building in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Obama referred to them as “generational projects” where the U.S. can help, but cannot do it for them.
As for Russia and its actions in Ukraine, the president said steady pressure from sanctions is making the Russian economy sufficiently vulnerable and increasingly difficult to manage.
Obama also said, following costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he wants to focus U.S. resources at home rebuilding schools, roads, basic science and research.