If he could start over his presidency, the first order of business would be to close Guantanamo Bay, Obama said.
The comment came in response to a question posed by a seventh grader following his speech at the City Club of Cleveland on Wednesday. She asked him what advice he would give himself if he could go back to his first day as President of the US.
"I think I would have closed Guantanamo on the first day," he said. The answer was met with applause from the audience.
Obama went on to explain that despite bipartisan agreement to shut down Guantanamo at the time he took office, he had not anticipated the changing politics around the controversial prison facility.
"I didn’t at the time because we had a bipartisan agreement that it should be closed…and I thought 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, and once that set in then the path of least resistant was just leave it open even though it’s not who we are in the country."
Bowing to a fear mongering campaign, waged by the Republican opposition, Obama did what was easier: never followed through on his promise. As a result, seven years later the facility remains open.
The prison, operating at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base since the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has been the subject of international scrutiny and criticism for its treatment of prisoners. Alleged "enemy combatants" from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries drawn into the US’s War on Terror are detained in the facility without charges, tortured, and denied protection under the Geneva Convention. Many of the prisoners were cleared for release years ago: even US military commissions had to admit that these people are innocent and do not present any danger. Nevertheless, they are still held in the facility without a clear release date.
Critics also say the prison has become a popular recruiting tool for terrorists. Obama, in his comments on Wednesday, similarly noted that it is "used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists." Islamic State (IS) militants have beheaded Americans after dressing them in orange jumpsuits similar to those used in Guantanamo Bay.
Obama had repeatedly made vows to close the prison, dating back to his first presidential campaign in 2008 when he referred to Guantanamo as a "sad chapter in American history."
In a 60 Minutes interview in November 2008, Obama said "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that." He signed an executive order shortly after being sworn in as President, that required the prison be closed within a year.
A main obstacle for Obama making good on his promise is the politically unpopular task of transferring the facility’s prisoners. Republicans in Congress have repeatedly stymied Obama’s efforts by passing measures that would prevent the transfer of prisoners to US soil or building domestic facilities to hold them.
As a result, the Obama administration has resorted to simply "chipping away" at the prison’s population instead of shuttering it all together. The prisoner population has been reduced to 122 inmates from a total of 779.
"We’ve had to just chip away at it year after year after year," he said.
Obama reiterated his pledge to shutter Guantanamo in his latest State of the Union Address, but with two years left in office, it is difficult to see the president make good on his promise by the end of his term.