President Barack Obama on Tuesday forcefully defended his policy toward Syria, his handling of the Boston Marathon bombing, the future of Obamacare and even his political relevance in a wide-ranging press conference 100 days into his second term.
Obama also made a passionate promise to try again to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.
The president delivered an unprompted tribute to Jason Collins, the first openly gay active NBA player, calling him “a terrific young man” and a “role model” for gay youth who may be struggling.
“One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality—not just partial equality, not just tolerance, but a recognition that they are fully a part of the American family,” the president said. “America should be proud.”
Obama batted down calls for the U.S. to escalate its role in Syria's civil war after intelligence concluded that President Bashar Assad likely used the deadly nerve agent sarin on rebels seeking his ouster. Obama said proof that Assad unleashed chemical weapons would be a "game changer" but warned that the United States cannot rush to judgment.
"We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them—we don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," Obama told reporters during the hastily announced question-and-answer session in the White House briefing room. "I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts."
He added, "If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence” confirming the U.S. intelligence community's preliminary finding that Assad likely used the deadly nerve agent sarin, then America may find it hard to rally support from the international community and even some partners in the region who support Assad's ouster. So "it’s important for us to do this in a prudent way," Obama said.
But the president repeated that the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer "because what that portends is potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians, and it raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands."
"By 'game changer' I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us," said Obama, who has sent aid to Syria's opposition and neighboring countries like Turkey and Jordan, but thus far has resisted calls to arm the rebels or attack Assad's forces directly.
Obama said "a spectrum of options" are "on the shelf right now" but might be used because chemical weapons would represent "an escalation, in our view, of the threat."
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham accused Obama of trying to “defend the indefensible,” pointing to estimates that the conflict has left some 70,000 dead.
“Now Assad has crossed the President’s red line,” they said in a joint statement. “The credibility of the United States is on the line, not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the President backs up his words with action.”
The GOP lawmakers added: “Unfortunately, the red line has been blurred with each passing day. It will not be long before Assad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale."
On a different topic, Obama laughed off a reporter's question about whether the defeat of a bipartisan bill to enhance background checks of would-be gun buyers and other legislative struggles meant he lacked the political “juice” to advance his second-term agenda.
“If you put it that way,” the president said with a chuckle, “maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.”
"As Mark Twain said, you know, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."
Obama said he is confident that bipartisan efforts to overhaul America’s immigration policy will result in a bill that passes the Senate and House and “gets on my desk.”
But he had harsh words for the “dysfunctional” Congress and critics who seem to think "that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave."
“That’s their job,” he said sternly.
Obama denied claims by some Republicans that the Boston Marathon bombings indicated an intelligence failure. He said investigators worked in “exemplary fashion" to track down the perpetrators of the attack and to determine what provoked two Russian-born brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to detonate the two devices that killed three and injured nearly 300.
Obama said the FBI had worked in concert with Russian officials to identify and question Tamerlan Tsarnaev after Russian investigators suggested he might be embracing extremist views. The FBI interviewed Tamerlan but said nothing had indicated he would carry out an attack. Obama said U.S. and Russian officials were continuing to cooperate in the investigation.
Obama said Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s apparent embrace of radical Islam indicates a growing concern about “self-radicalized individuals” living in the United States and unconnected to any terror networks.
Obama said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is reviewing what happened to see if there are additional protocols to put in place to detect a potential attack in the future.
“Was there something that happened that triggered radicalization?" Obama said. "Are there additional things that could have been done in the interim?"
The president vowed to revisit one of the most high-profile promises from his history-making 2008 campaign: closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility.
"I'm going to go back at this," he said with evident passion. "It needs to be closed.
"It's critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama said in his most forceful remarks on the issue in years.
The prison is expensive and inefficient and "hurts us in terms of our international standing," Obama said, calling it "a recruitment tool" for extremists.
"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," he said.
Obama said American could not be in the business of holding roughly 100 detainees in a "no man's land in perpetuity" without trying them. "That is contrary to who we are." But he acknowledged that "it's a hard case to make" to the public.
Asked whether his administration would continue to force-feed hunger-strikers at the facility, Obama replied: "I don't want these individuals to die."
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama could take two steps now to advance that goal.
“One is to appoint a senior point person so that the administration’s Guantanamo closure policy is directed by the White House and not by Pentagon bureaucrats,” Romero said. “The president can also order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantanamo population.”
The president pushed back on comments by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, who called the implementation of the Affordable Care Act a “train wreck.” Obama said most of the provisions of the new health care law are already in place.
“For the 85-90 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, they’re already experiencing most of the benefits,” Obama said, noting that under the new law, insurance companies cannot drop people because of pre-existing conditions and that young people up to age 26 can remain on their parents’ policies. Obama said the implementation challenges will mainly affect Americans currently without insurance who will now be required to enroll in health care exchanges to purchase coverage.
The challenge is that setting up a market based system … is a big, complicated piece of business,” Obama said, adding it is further complicated by Republican efforts to block or defund implementation.
Obama held the news conference during a week that both the Senate and House are out of town, making it harder for lawmakers to counter his message.