WASHINGTON – President Obama said Tuesday he is renewing efforts to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and will search for members of Congress to help him get it done.
“I’m going to go back at this,” Obama said. “I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.”
Obama also tried to reassure Americans about the looming impacts of his healthcare reform plan and warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government – if verified to his satisfaction – would trigger a U.S. response from within a “range of options.”
A hundred days into his second term, Obama portrayed his White House as on the verge of action on several fronts, sarcastically dismissing a question about whether he has “the juice” to get any of his agenda through the politically divided Congress.
“Maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly,” he said, shaking his head. “As Mark Twain said, you know, ‘Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.’”
The moment when a reelected president shifts from empowered to lame-duck status is a favorite Washington parlor game, but Obama spent 47 minutes in the White House briefing room trying to make the case that this shift is still in the distant future of his second term.
One sign of gumption was his unexpected promise to renew efforts to close the controversial detention center. Obama had called for the closure of Guantanamo as his first presidential order in 2009, but Congress blocked him by refusing to transport those detainees back to the United States. With little hope of transfer or release, more than half the detainees are now on a hunger strike.
Now, Obama says, he is looking for potential allies in Congress who “care about fighting terrorism but also care about who we are as a people.”
“The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried – that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop,” Obama said. “Now, it’s a hard case to make because, you know, I think for a lot of Americans, the notion is out of sight, out of mind, and it’s easy to demagogue the issue.
“That’s what happened the first time this came up,” he said. “I’m going to go back at it because I think it’s important.”
As the government prepares to implement Obama’s healthcare reform, the president tried to downplay the disruption the new law will bring to the system. He said it complicates matters that a few states, including Florida and Texas, don’t plan to cooperate to create state-based insurance exchanges where consumers will be able to buy coverage.
“If states aren’t cooperating, we set up a federal exchange, so that people can access that federal exchange,” Obama said. “But yes, it puts more of a burden on us. And it’s ironic, since all these folks say that they believe in empowering states, that they’re going to end up having the federal government do something that we’d actually prefer states to do if they were properly cooperating.”
On Syria, Obama said he won’t take action against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad until he has “the facts” about the reported use of chemical weapons.
“If I can establish, in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game-changer,” Obama said, adding, “By game-changer, I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.”
Obama took questions from five television correspondents and one Spanish-language newspaper reporter before turning to leave the podium.
As he headed for the door, though, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd asked if he had anything to say about Jason Collins, the NBA player who came out publicly as gay this week. And Obama stepped back to the microphone.
“Given the importance of sports in our society, for an individual who’s excelled at the highest levels in one of the major sports to go ahead and say, ‘This is who I am, I’m proud of it, I’m still a great competitor, I’m still 7 feet tall and can bang with Shaq and, you know, deliver a hard foul’ ... to see a role model like that who’s unafraid, I think it’s a great thing,” he said.
“I had a chance to talk to him yesterday,” Obama said. “He seems like a terrific young man, and, you know, I told him I couldn’t be prouder of him.”