At an appearance in Cleveland last March, President Obama was asked by a seventh grader what he’d do differently if he could go back to the beginning of his term.
“I would have closed Guantanamo on the first day,” Obama replied. “I thought that we had enough consensus there that we could do it in a more deliberate fashion, but the politics of it got tough and people got scared by the rhetoric around it. Once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open.”
That’s not a bad summary of how things have played out. But with Obama now making a final effort to fulfill a pledge that was central to his political rise, there’s little indication that those tricky politics have gotten any easier.
The road to this point has been winding—and filled with lofty rhetoric that has thrilled Obama's progressive supporters but remained just that: rhetoric. As he made his first run for president, Obama’s insistence on closing the detention facility—constructed by the Bush administration beginning in 2002 to house those picked up in Afghanistan and Iraq—gave concrete form to his promise to move the country past the bitterness and division of the George W. Bush years. To many Bush critics at that time, Gitmo, with its harsh interrogation techniques and extralegal detention procedures, was perhaps the most prominent symbol of America's disastrous abdication of moral leadership as it fought the war on terror.
“As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions,” the candidate declared in a major foreign policy speech in August 2007. “Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”
In January 2009, as one of his first official Oval Office acts, Obama signed an executive order to close the facility within a year. He invoked “an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard.”
Just how hard, Obama appears not to have anticipated. By May 2010, with Guantanamo still little closer to being shut down that even Sen. Bernie Sanders voted against the idea, the Democratic-controlled House Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to ban any replacement facility from opening on U.S. soil. (Later that year, the ban would be included in a defense bill.) A month after that rebuke, an administration official acknowledged reality: “The president can’t just wave a magic wand and say that Gitmo will be closed.”
But the real turning point may have come in 2011, when then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pushed to bring terror mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to a Manhattan federal court to try him for the 9/11 attacks. That set off a panic among congressional Republicans—and some New York Democrats—who claimed, with little evidence, that the move would pose security risks and that an open trial could give Mohammed a platform to attack America. Ultimately, Obama gave in to their demands to try Mohammed via military tribunal instead.
It was strikingly easy at that time for Obama’s political opponents to stoke public fear about the prospect of knowingly bringing terrorists onto U.S. soil. And today, as he revives the issue, the climate appears perhaps even less hospitable. Even before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino brought the issue of terrorism back to the forefront for many Americans, a June 2015 poll found that more than half of respondents wanted to keep Gitmo open while only 28 percent wanted to see it closed.
What has changed since 2011 is Obama’s willingness to use his presidential powers to get around roadblocks erected by Republicans—as he’s done during his second term on climate change, immigration, guns and more. But adopting that approach here, in defiance of the congressional ban, would raise genuine constitutional issues—not to mention causing political problems for the Democratic nominee to succeed him. Notably, the Republican presidential candidates are already competing to see who can denounce the plan in the strongest terms.*
Quietly, Obama has gradually reduced the number of detainees held at Gitmo, from 242 when he took office to 91 today. Still, of those, 47 have been deemed too dangerous to release. That means that even if Obama succeeds in having them moved to a domestic facility—and with congressional Republicans again pledging to fight him tooth and nail, that’s far from a sure thing—he’ll face another equally troubling question: If the U.S. is continuing to hold detainees year after year without formal charges, has it really even solved the problem of Guantanamo, or just swept it under the rug?
*This story has been updated to reflect that Hillary Clinton issued a statement supporting the president's plan to close Guantanamo Bay.