WASHINGTON - Responding to critics, President Barack Obama promised Friday to work with Congress on "appropriate reforms" for domestic surveillance programs that were thrust into the public eye by leaker Edward Snowden, pointing the way to what could be the most comprehensive changes since the anti-terror Patriot Act was passed in the wake of the attacks of Sept, 11, 2001.
"It's not enough for me to have confidence in these programs," the president declared at a White House news conference shortly before a scheduled departure on a weeklong vacation. " The American people have to have confidence in them as well." The president announced a series of changes in a program that daily collects millions of records of phone calls made by Americans.
As for Snowden, recently granted temporary asylum by Russia, Obama said he is not a patriot, as some have suggested, and challenged him to return to the United States to face espionage charges.
The hour-long news conference ranged over numerous issues, although the president became especially animated when the questions turned to Republicans in Congress. He said they would risk the wrath of the public if they vote to shut down the government this fall in an attempt to cut off funding for his signature health care program.
He said that while he was receptive to House Republicans proposing an alternative immigration bill, his preference was for a vote on a Senate-passed measure that combines border security with a chance at citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
He said he was "absolutely certain" such a bill would pass in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.
Nor did he mince his words about the United States' deteriorating relationship with Russia. He said President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to grant asylum to Snowden was merely the latest in a series of differences between the two countries, including a response to the Syrian civil war and to human rights issues.
"I've encouraged Mr. Putin to look forward rather than backward," Obama said, evoking memories of relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The president, who just this week canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin, added, "It is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our foreign interests are and calibrate the relationship."
Obama also said he has a range of candidates he is considering to become chairman of the Federal Reserve, a nomination he likened in importance to selecting a Supreme Court justice. Among the contenders are former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the Fed, he said, adding that whoever replaces Ben Bernanke must focus his attention on keeping inflation in check and helping strengthen the recovery from the worst recession in decades.
While saying he won't pick a Fed chairman until the fall, he expressed irritation at critics of Summers, including some Democrats in Congress, whom Obama said were engaging in "a standard Washington exercise that I don't like" of launching pre-emptive attacks before an appointment has been made.
The president and his family were departing the White House later in the day for a weeklong vacation at Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
It was Obama's first full-blown White House news conference since April, and both his opening statement about surveillance programs and the questions that followed underscored the constantly shifting mix of issues in the nation's summertime capital.