Barack Obama Celebrates Last Birthday in Office With High Ratings

President Barack Obama smiles during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Thursday. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Updated | President Barack Obama celebrated his 55th birthday the way most middle-aged men do: with a three hour briefing at the Pentagon followed by questions about ISIS and Donald Trump, the Zika virus and commuting the sentences of hundreds of prisoners. Sure, it wasn't the standard cake-and-a-new-tie kind of birthday for the father of two, but it had a certain emblematic quality for the final days of his presidency.

Obama's popularity has crept over 50 percent, and his party, which suffered so badly in 2010 and 2014—the two midterm elections during his presidency—seems poised to make gains thanks to Trump, who has proven to be as unlikely a nominee as the freshman senator was in 2008. Now that he's doing well in the polls, Obama was, as they say, "full of vinegar" at his hour-plus press conference. But even in the most challenging moments of his presidency, suffering congressional losses or other setbacks to his ambitions, Obama has always kept his confidence—perhaps not with the same staccato giddiness of a George W. Bush or the red-faced indignation of Bill Clinton, but it's always been there.

The president boasted about the success of the nuclear deal with Iran and dismissed reports that the U.S. air delivered $400 million to the theocratic regime in exchange for releasing prisoners. The first African-American president was glad to talk about his unprecedented set of prisoner commutations, announced recently, and he described them as a kind of down payment on reversing years of high rates of incarceration in the U.S. Despite a summer of ISIS-inspired attacks, Obama appeared sanguine about defeating the terrorist group, even while he allowed that the lone wolf attacks have been on the rise. ISIS, he said, "turns out not to be invincible," noting coalition successes on the battlefield in the Middle East such as the retaking of Fallujah, a much-contested Iraqi city.

The president had a Cheshire cat grin while he addressed the transfer of funds to Iran. He denied that there was any quid pro quo for prisoners and reminded the press corps and the television audience that the administration had announced the payments when the Iran deal was forged.

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. August 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The transfer of cash, Obama said, was necessary because the administration was heeding strict banking sanctions that negated the possibility of using a wire transfer. He said the real story was the "manufacture of outrage" over a non-issue, and that a good angle for the press would be to track down critics of the Iran deal and ask them about how well it is working. "It's now been well over a year since the deal was signed and by all accounts it has worked exactly the way we said it would," Obama said. "Why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster say it worked?"

Now that's a confident president.

Obama is mostly right about the Iran agreement—at least thus far. The deal seems to have prevented the short-term breakout of nuclear capabilities that were widely feared, and Iran has not been found to be cheating. Moreover, the president insisted that the plane full of' money had nothing to do with the release of hostages. The money was simply the $400 million that was being adjudicated in international court for decades and which the U.S. was likely to lose. Thus, Obama argued, the payment—a return of funds for weapons that were never delivered to the Shah of Iran's regime—saved Americans billions.

That may well be true, but skepticism is warranted. First, Republicans and Democrats were surprised to say the least by the Wall Street Journal account of the money drop which noted that it occurred the same day that Iran released American hostages raising questions about whether a ransom was paid. Even if it wasn't, the optics were pretty terrible. And if it was such a great deal why not release an account of the transfer at the time? Second, deals are sometimes more opaque. The Cuban Missile Crisis stand-down in 1962, it was revealed later, involved the U.S. withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey. It was instrumental to the deescalation of tensions but it wasn't revealed at the time to be a quid pro quo.

Above all at the press conference, Obama seemed to relish bashing Trump at the same time he insisted that he didn't want to spend too much time on Republican nominee. "I obviously have a very strong opinions of the two candidates running one is very positive and one is not so much," the president said.

He laughed off Trump's discussion of a rigged election, noting that in our federalist system, it would take a massive nationwide conspiracy to rig a general election: "If Mr. Trump is up 10 or 15 points on election day and ends up losing then you know maybe he can raise some questions." For good measure, he noted that bad sports usually wait until they lose before they whine.

After a last round of questions about Syria and Russia, Obama excused himself. He said he had a birthday dinner to catch.

Correction: This story has been updated to include that the Wall Street Journal broke the story of funds being returned to Iran on the same day that hostages were released. An earlier version of this story incorrectly repeated false accusations that the Iranian regime released a video of the money transfer.