Obama’s victory lap overshadowed by ISIS concerns
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wanted to use his final news conference of the year to tout his 2015 highlights: thawing relations with Cuba, tackling global warming, halting Iran’s nuclear program and winning a bipartisan budget deal.
But concerns about terrorism and doubts about his policy to confront ISIS overshadowed his victory lap, leaving Obama once again striving to convince Americans he understands the threat and is ready to confront it.
“We are going defeat ISIS,” Obama said, insisting that U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq were hitting the group “harder than ever” and were taking the group’s leaders, commanders and forces off the battlefield.
But he warned the groups would continue to be a menace: “In any fight, even as you make progress, there are still dangers involved.”
The President admitted that ISIS’s new focus on orchestrating and inspiring spontaneous terror attacks on the West — often by radicalized individuals — would be much more difficult to stop in advance than the more intricate plots once organized by Al-Qaeda.
“It is very difficult for us to detect lone wolf plots or plots involving a husband and wife,” Obama said, referring to the San Bernardino, California, attack earlier this month that killed 14 people.
“It’s not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter. You don’t always see it. They’re not always communicating publicly, and if you’re not catching what they say publicly, then it becomes a challenge.”
Trying to convince Americans
Since the Paris and California attacks, Obama has repeatedly tried to convince Americans that he takes the threat from ISIS seriously, even as he heads off for his annual two-week vacation in his native Hawaii. In the last 11 days alone, Obama has given a televised national address, and visited the Pentagon and the National Counterterrorism Center outside Washington. Later Friday, he will stop in California to mourn with family members of those killed in San Bernardino.
Obama made no mention of — and was not asked about — reports that he told journalists in an off the record session this week that he had been too slow to appreciate public alarm about the attacks in Paris and California. Those reports also suggested that Obama believes that if he sent ground troops back to the Middle East, up to 100 U.S. soldiers a month could die. He has reportedly concluded that the current threat from the group does not justify such a horrific price in American lives.
Despite the holiday season concern about terrorism, Obama did try to haul the spotlight back to his major achievements in a year that precedent would suggest he should have struggled to exert influence as a lame duck.
He hailed his administration’s diplomacy with Cuba, Iran, the recently concluded global climate deal that he said was a result of U.S. leadership. He said that thanks to his signature Obamacare law, the number of uninsured people had fallen below 10% of the population for the first time since records began. He said 6 million people had signed up for health coverage under the law beginning next year and noted that in all, 17 million more people gained coverage.
Such progress, Obama argued, was a result of steps taken throughout his seven years in office coming to fruition.
“I just want to point out I said at the beginning of this year that interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and we are only halfway through,” Obama said, vowing that he would not let up in during his final year in the White House. “Since taking this office, I have never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now.”
Syria, however, looks like it will be as irksome to Obama next year as it has been this year with questions mounting over whether the level of commitment he is prepared to make to the war against ISIS will be sufficient to meeting his goal of destroying the group.
Even as he defended his own strategy, Obama also took a jab at Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he had predicted that the Russian operation in the war-torn country would not change the shape of the battlefield between Moscow-backed President Bashar al-Assad and his internal foes.
“I do think you have seen from the Russians that after a couple of months they are not really moving the needle that much,” Obama said.
“Of course, that is what I suggested would happen,” he said. But the President added that eventually Assad would have to go for the bloodletting in Syria’s vicious civil war to end. He said, however, that he hoped it would be possible to build a diplomatic “bridge” on the timing of his departure so that backers of Assad like Russia and Iran would feel their interests were protected.
Obama insisted that he would use his final year to continue to try to close to war on terror camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arguing that it remained an important recruiting tool for jihadists around the world.
The detainee population at Guantanamo Bay should drop below 100 by early 2016, he said.
The President would not say that he would wield executive power to empty the camp full of its remaining terror suspects — and bring those who cannot be released because they are viewed as too dangerous or cannot be tried — to the U.S mainland.
He said he would wait to see if he could reach compromise with Congress on the issue.
“I’m not going to automatically assume that Congress says no,” Obama said. “I think we can make a very strong argument that it doesn’t make sense for us to be spending an extra $500 billion to have a secure setting for 70 people.”
But Obama acknowledged he faces an “uphill battle” on Capitol Hill.
As he looked back at a deal grouping developed and developing nations and reached this month in Paris designed to limit the rise in global temperatures, Obama argued that the pact would not have “happened without American leadership.”
And he couldn’t resist a jab against GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates who have vowed to do everything they can do to thwart the agreement.
“Keep in mind right now, the American Republican Party is the only major party in the advanced world that effectively denies climate change. It is an outlier,” Obama said, pointing out that even right of center parties elsewhere in the world backed the deal.
He also weighed into a controversy sparked in this week’s CNN Republican presidential debate as some candidates questioned whether the United States had erred in toppling Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 in an intervention meant to avert a threatened genocide but which left behind what is now effectively a failed state and an opening for ISIS to build terrorist training camps.
In a rare admission of error, the President suggested his administration should have done more to stabilize the country.
“The problem with Libya was the fact that there was a failure on the part of the entire international community, and I think that the United States has some accountability for not moving swiftly enough and underestimating the need to rebuild government there quickly, and as a consequence, you now have a very bad situation,” he said.
Unusually in Obama’s tenure, Washington is not ending the year locked in a political showdown between the White House and Republicans who control Capitol Hill.
The President praised House Speaker Paul Ryan and his predecessor, John Boehner, for shepherding a massive budget deal through Congress.
“It’s important to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “John Boehner did a favor to all of us, including now-Speaker Ryan, by working with us to agree on a top-line budget framework.”
Obama also said he had a “good working relationship” with Ryan, who succeeded Boehner over the fall.
“In his interactions with me, he has been professional and reached out to tell me what he can do and what he cannot do. I think it’s a good working relationship,” Obama said. “We recognize that we disagree on a whole bunch of other stuff, and have fundamentally different visions for where we want to move the country, but perhaps, because even before he was elected he had worked on Capitol Hill, I think he is respectful of the process and respectful of how legislation works. So kudos to him as well as all the other leaders and appropriators who were involved in this process.”
In what was a comparatively brief news conference by his standards, the President wished reporters a Merry Christmas and left the White House briefing room, saying that he had to join a group of family members of U.S. service personnel killed in action for a showing of the new “Star Wars” movie that opened this week.