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Obama says too soon to declare demise of his domestic agenda

U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured as first lady Michelle Obama (not pictured) speaks during an event on finding employment for militar
U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured as first lady Michelle Obama (not pictured) speaks during an event on finding employment for militar

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With his fight for tighter gun control measures defeated and prospects for a deficit reduction pact dim, President Barack Obama sought on Tuesday to project an image of a leader still in control of a faltering domestic policy agenda.

At a surprise news conference, Obama made the case that recent defeats did not mean he was a lame-duck leader, and said he was hopeful immigration reform would become law.

"As Mark Twain said, you know, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated," the president told reporters at the White House when asked whether he had "the juice" to push his policy priorities through Congress.

Obama started off his second term this year with energetic promises to tackle climate change, reduce gun violence, push immigration reform, and fix the budget.

But so far, many of his initiatives have fallen flat. Modest changes to background checks for gun buyers failed in the U.S. Senate, and across-the board spending cuts known as "sequester" went into effect despite efforts by the Obama administration to stop them.

The president noted on Tuesday that the United States had a divided government with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate requiring 60 out of 100 votes to pass legislation.

"Despite that, I'm actually confident that there are a range of things that we're going to be able to get done," he said.

"I feel confident that the bipartisan work that's been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate, passes the House, and gets on my desk. And that's going to be a historic achievement."

Both political parties have an incentive to pass immigration reform after Hispanic voters supported Obama overwhelmingly in the 2012 election.

Obama praised a Senate version of the bill and said he would keep an open mind to a similar, perhaps more conservative, version in the House as long as it met the criteria of strengthening border security and creating a pathway for undocumented workers to become citizens.

"If they meet those criteria, but they're slightly different than the Senate bill, then I think that we should be able to come up with an appropriate compromise," he said."

"If it doesn't meet those criteria, then I will not support such a bill."

LEGACY, BUDGET WOES

Political observers generally say the president has roughly a year before focus in Washington turns to the 2014 mid-term elections, rendering him less able to dominate the agenda.

Broad immigration reform this year would give Obama a policy victory that would help define his legacy.

A major deal on the deficit is less likely.

Obama said he would continue to reach out to lawmakers in the opposing party to work on an elusive deficit deal, but he did not indicate a great deal of optimism that a broad agreement was possible.

"I've had some good conversations with Republican senators so far. Those conversations are continuing," he said, referring to recent dinners he has had that some have dubbed a charm offensive.

"I think there's a genuine desire on many of their parts to move past not only sequester but Washington dysfunction. Whether we can get it done or not, we'll see."

The president seemed to show some vindication over the recent uproar over the economic effects of the sequester cuts after taking criticism earlier this year for overselling how damaging they would be.

"The notion was somehow that we had exaggerated the effects of the sequester - remember?" Obama said.

"What we now know is what I warned earlier ... is happening. It's slowed our growth. It's resulting in people being thrown out of work. And it's hurting folks all across the country."

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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