President Barack Obama declared Tuesday that he’s still a force to be reckoned with, even as he faces a recalcitrant Congress, a stalled agenda, few options for containing civil war in Syria and new questions about U.S anti-terrorism efforts in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
In a broad-themed press conference 100 days into his second term, the topics underscored the extent of the president’s frustrations: failures to pass gun control or reach a budget deal, a hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay detention center he’s been unable to close, and events seemingly beyond his control from Boston to Syria.
"Maybe I should just pack up and go home, golly," Obama said in jest, responding to a question of whether he still has "the juice" to get his agenda moving.
"Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point," he said, paraphrasing Mark Twain. "I’m actually confident that there are a range of things that we’re going to be able to get done."
His remarks were reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton’s insistence that he was still relevant after losing control of the House of Representatives in 1994, an assertion that the president still has influence, if not unlimited power, even when the tides have turned against him.
In the case of Clinton, he still faced stormy days of budget showdowns and government shutdowns with the Republican House under Speaker Newt Gingrich. Eventually, though, Clinton went on to win re-election and to forge historic welfare reform and budget deals with Congress.
For Obama, his remarks came two weeks after he suffered one of his biggest legislative defeats, when his proposals aimed at curbing gun violence were rejected. Still, Obama pinned hopes on an immigration overhaul he said would be a historic achievement if passed. And Obama, who predicted that the “fever” of Republican opposition to his agenda would break after his re-election, said he’s encouraged by his recent dinners with senators and hopeful they’ll find a way to break the budget logjam that has resulted in governing by crisis, including a series of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
“I think there’s a genuine desire on many of their parts to move past not only sequester but Washington dysfunction,” Obama said of the senators he’s dined with. “Whether we can get it done or not, we’ll see.”
“There are common-sense solutions to our problems right now,” he said. “I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions.”
Many of his replies circled back to a continuing frustration with Congress. Obama said he’s asked his staff to look again at closing Guantanamo, but he noted that Congress had thwarted earlier efforts.
And he pushed back against criticism that the Boston bombing – and the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate facility in Benghazi – pointed to a softening of national security preparedness. He defended the work of federal law enforcement officials investigating the Boston bombings who’ve been criticized for failing to act more aggressively to Russian intelligence warnings.
Obama said he’s asked intelligence officials for a thorough investigation that will “review every step that was taken,” and he dismissed criticism by some senators, singling out Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has said that Boston and September’s attack in Libya pointed to a deteriorating national security system.
“Mr. Graham is not right on this issue, although I’m sure it generated some headlines,” Obama said.
Obama said the FBI investigated and interviewed one of the suspects in the case after Russian intelligence services alerted U.S. intelligence, but it found no signs that he was engaging in extremist activity.
He said self-radicalized individuals pose an increasingly dangerous threat and he’s pushed his counterterrorism team for months to be on the alert. “But all of this has to be done in the context of our laws, due process,” he said.
He sidestepped a question about the attacks in Libya, saying he wasn’t familiar with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee charges that survivors of the Benghazi attack have been blocked by the State Department from coming forward to give their stories.
“What I’ve been very clear about from the start is that our job with respect to Benghazi has been to find out exactly what happened, to make sure that U.S. embassies, not just in the Middle East, but around the world are safe and secure, and to bring those who carried it out to justice,” Obama said.
Obama, who has said previously that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer,” said Tuesday that though the U.S. has found that chemical weapons had been used, there are still too many unanswered questions to take further action..
"When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” he said.
Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accused Obama of further inflaming the situation by not acting more forcefully.
“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,” they said in a statement.
On immigration, Obama said he’s impressed with the Senate version and is staying open-minded about a reportedly more conservative House version that he hasn’t yet seen. But, he said, he won’t support legislation that doesn’t include a path to citizenship for the 11 million or so who are undocumented.
Obama took questions from just six reporters and ignored all but one question shouted to him. He turned back to the lectern to deliver his reaction to Jason Collins, the NBA center whom he called to congratulate Monday for becoming the first athlete in a major American team sport to publicly acknowledge he’s gay.
“I told him I couldn’t be prouder,” Obama said, calling Collins a role model for gay and lesbian youth. “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 seven foot tall and can bang with Shaq and deliver a hard foul.’”