Staring down his final year in office, President Obama vowed Friday to give Congress one last chance to approve legislation to shut down the notorious prison for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay before he looks at executive actions to close the facility.
“It’ll be an uphill battle,” he acknowledged in an upbeat end-of-the-year press conference. “Every battle I’ve had with Congress over the last five years has been uphill, but we keep on surprising you by actually getting some stuff done.”
Obama said he would continue the policy of shipping out detainees eligible for transfer to other countries, and ultimately send Congress a detailed plan that would, among other things, describe what to do with prisoners who cannot be transferred, tried or released.
“We will wait until Congress has said definitively ‘no’ to a well thought out plan with numbers attached to it before we say anything definitive about my executive authority here,” he said. “I think it’s far preferable if I can get stuff done with Congress.”
Obama’s comments highlighted how his inability to shutter the facility in his first year has bedeviled his consequential two-term presidency — and threatens to stand among his most high-profile failures. With bipartisan support, Congress has approved legislation that aims to prevent him from moving any detainees to U.S. soil and would surely challenge any use of executive power to do so.
The president also said he hoped for bipartisan action in 2016 on an ambitious trade deal with Asian economies and to reform America’s criminal justice system. He also praised new Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan — while mocking the GOP at length for the party’s skepticism about climate change.
“The American Republican Party is the only major party that I can think of in the advanced world that effectively denies climate change,” he said. Far-right parties in Europe “may not like immigrants, for example, but they admit, yes, the science tells us that we have to do something about climate change.”
Obama offered “kudos” to Ryan and praised his predecessor, John Boehner, for setting the stage for congressional approval of a $1.1 trillion spending package that funds the government for the rest of fiscal year 2016.
“I’m not wild about everything in it. I’m sure that’s true for everybody. But it is a budget that, as I insisted, invests in our military and our middle class without ideological provisions that would have weakened Wall Street reform or rules on big polluters,” the president said. “It was a good win.”
Obama, fresh off an unusual weeklong public relations offensive to convince deeply skeptical Americans that he has a winning strategy for defeating the Islamic State, vowed to stamp out the terrorist organization. But he also suggested that its ability to inspire attacks like the one in San Bernardino, Calif., made it in some ways more dangerous than al-Qaida, which relied on trained extremist cells.
“This is a different kind of challenge than the sort that we had with an organization like al-Qaida, that involved highly trained operatives who were working as cells or as a network,” he said. “Here, essentially, you have ISIL trying to encourage or induce somebody who may be prey to this kind of propaganda, and it becomes more difficult to see.”
“It does mean that they are less likely to be able to carry out large, complex attacks,” Obama said, “but as we saw in San Bernardino, obviously, you can still do enormous damage.”
Still, he said, the U.S.-led military campaign will ultimately destroy the group, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
“We’re going to defeat ISIS,” he said.
The president spoke shortly before he was to leave Friday evening with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, for their holiday in Hawaii.
On the way, they were to stop in San Bernardino, where the president and first lady were to meet privately with relatives of the 14 people killed in the Islamic State-inspired attack there on Dec. 2.
There were lighter moments as well in the press conference. When one reporter’s cellphone rang — and rang, and rang, and rang — Obama expressed bemused annoyance.
“Whose phone is that, guys? Come on, now. Somebody. You recognize your ring. Don’t be embarrassed — just turn it off!” he said.
And the president, who let reporters know in his opening line that the question-and-answer session was “not the most important event that’s taking place in the White House today” because of a “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” screening for Gold Star families that have lost a loved one in war, took his leave in similar fashion.
“OK, everybody, I gotta get to ‘Star Wars’!”