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Obama: Second Term Agenda Still on Track

Obama: Second Term Agenda Still on Track

By Alexis Simendinger - May 1, 2013

President Obama on Tuesday tried to invigorate the unfinished business of his second term, while cautiously steering around simmering international events that could divert energy and support he needs for his vulnerable domestic agenda.

During a 48-minute White House news conference, the president expressed confidence he will enact an immigration reform bill; said he still aspires to revoke across-the-board spending cuts via a long-shot budget deal; said he is attentive to the complexities of rolling out the new health reform law; and has not abandoned his pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, where detainees are being force-fed during a hunger strike.

On international policy, Obama recalibrated his earlier “red line” rhetoric that use of chemical weapons or the movement of chemical stockpiles in Syria would prompt an escalation in U.S. involvement in the 2-year-old civil war there. He said the United States awaits detailed corroboration of reports that sarin gas was used against the Syrian opposition, adding the administration would act only with firm evidence and only in concert with international partners -- and if there is “an escalation, in our view, of the threat to the security of the international community, our allies and the United States.”

Hours after Obama spoke, bombing attacks escalated in Syria, killing at least 18 people in a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives.

The process of establishing the facts may be long. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do,” he said. He did not elaborate on U.S. military options, including a no-fly zone or providing weapons and supplies to the rebels.

The president also suggested the Boston bombings appeared to be the work of “self-radicalized” individuals living in the United States and working alone, not in collaboration with a terrorist organization. “We want to leave no stone unturned,” he explained, when asked about the U.S. intelligence review under way.

At the 100-day mark of his second term, Obama inserted the surprise news conference into his schedule (the second since his inauguration) to tap his bully pulpit while Congress is in recess. Before lawmakers return to Washington on Monday, the president will visit Mexico and Costa Rica later this week and deliver the commencement address Sunday at Ohio State University.

“As Mark Twain said, you know, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point,” Obama said, dismissing a question about his failure to pass gun control measures and his inability to pressure lawmakers to avert the deep spending cuts known as sequestration.

“We understand that we're in divided government right now,” he said. “Right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill.”

The president said the legislative and executive branches may yet work out agreements on “a range” of issues, but he offered only one example: his first-term holdover promise to enact a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“I feel confident that the bipartisan work that's been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate and passes the House and gets on my desk. And that's going to be a historic achievement,” he said.

Obama commended a bipartisan group of senators for their progress in drafting a reform measure that he said met his general principles, even if there are “elements of it that I would change.” He said he was unfamiliar with the details of separate efforts in the House, noting that if a bill departs from his overall criteria in the Republican-controlled chamber, “I will not support such a bill.”

The president defended his recent decision to work with lawmakers to grant the Federal Aviation Administration more leeway over its accounts in order to avert furloughs of air traffic controllers (and end the inconvenience of passenger delays at airports). The White House, frustrated that Congress is in no hurry to work with Obama to rescind all of the law’s required budget cuts, expected the president to sign the hastily passed FAA “Band-Aid” bill before departing for Mexico.

Having warned that the sequester was bad policy that would unsettle many Americans who rely on federal services and support, Obama sought credit Tuesday for being the siren, and chafed that he has nevertheless become a target, especially among lawmakers who lament the impact just weeks after celebrating $86 billion in overall spending reductions over a span of seven months.

If he had held out for a bigger fix-it solution and refused to collaborate with lawmakers on just the FAA furloughs, “there'd be pain now -- which they would try to blame on me,” the president told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl.

“Jonathan, you seem to suggest 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 added in a stern voice. “Members of Congress are elected in order to do what's right for their constituencies and for the American people.”

Asked about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by 2014, Obama said politically motivated Republican opposition in the states to the establishment of new insurance exchanges will create greater challenges for the federal government, which by law must fill in the gaps for the uninsured and under-insured.

“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,” he said in reference to the resistance to Obamacare in state legislatures and among GOP governors.

The president also blamed Congress for blocking his administration’s efforts to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, where the Pentagon said 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike.

Obama said the situation at the prison cannot be sustained, is unnecessary to safeguard U.S. interests, and is a recruiting tool among extremists. He has sought to return some detainees to their home countries, and handle other prisoners through the federal court system, where terrorists have been tried and convicted and are serving life sentences. It is unclear what the government proposes when cases are flawed but detainees are deemed too dangerous to set free.

“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,” the president said.

“The notion that we're going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no man's land in perpetuity -- even at a time when we've wound down the war in Iraq; we're winding down the war in Afghanistan; we're having success defeating al-Qaeda’s core; we've kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks; when we've transferred detention authority in Afghanistan -- 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,” he said.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday he did not see a role for himself should Obama try again to overcome opposition in Congress to closing Guantanamo as a prison for accused terrorists.

“My responsibilities in Guantanamo are the safe and secure operation of the facility. And until that mission is no longer given to me, that is what we’ll continue to do,” he told RCP at a reporters’ roundtable organized by the Christian Science Monitor. He said the safety of prisoners and U.S. military were his responsibilities there.

“I’m not sure I can help on Capitol Hill with the issue of whether Guantanamo should stay open or close,” he said. “It’s not my role to find other options.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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