There is no greater and politically significant power of the presidency than the use of military force, no matter how “unbelievably small” it is supposed to be. The summoning of a nation to military action on behalf of national security interests, no matter how diffuse, regional, or nuanced they might be, is the supreme act of presidential power, persuasion, and projection.
A commander in chief speaks intimately to America, constitutionally to Congress, and authoritatively to the world when he deploys the bullet, bayonet, B-52, or Tomahawk missile. Presidents don’t do pinpricks, either. Every military maneuver—real or feigned, decisive or disastrous—echoes like a drum. The vibrations change the rhythm of domestic politics.
These truths transcend the Obama presidency. They are resonant enough in the aftermath of Syria, where new and unflattering stock is being taken of President Obama and his application of this vast and consequential power.
But Obama also elevated the choice of the next Federal Reserve Board chairman to a place of exalted power, describing it in a White House news conference as the “most important economic decision of his second term.”
This was after Obama had devoted weeks to retooling his economic message, when he downplayed deficit reduction and emphasized job creation and wage growth. The president concluded and signaled to Senate Democrats that he could only surmount the GOP hurdles of sequester, shutdown, and debt ceiling if he changed the debate from belt-tightening to middle-class security.
Taken together, Syria and Summers therefore represent—by history’s decree in the case of military power, and by Obama’s own grandiose vision of the Fed’s role in the economy—the most important second-term presentations of power.
And Senate Democrats were Obama’s undoing in both cases.
Among the reasons Obama sought an eleventh-hour deal with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons was the certainty he would lose a vote in the Democratically controlled Senate to authorize military force. Majority Leader Harry Reid was a distant and uncertain trumpet. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave wide and therefore dismissive berth to Obama. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who has lost clout by degrees to Schumer in the past two years, was deeply reluctant but came around.
Meanwhile, rank-and-file Democrats were either silent on, or sprinting away from, Syria. The weekend before Obama’s address to the nation, at least 16 Senate Democrats were solidly in the “no” or “lean no” column. Some whip counts had the number in the low 20s. Even after Obama pleaded with publicly undecided Democrats to remain silent, Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin announced her opposition. The White House was not close in the Senate. Suddenly, all the brave West Wing puffery about winning in the Senate and not waiting for action in the House (the 1999 “Kosovo precedent” became the policy shop’s retro “Blurred Lines” smash hit of the late summer) began to wilt.
By the time Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his opposition on Syria, it was as anticlimactic as the new Crossfire.
Senate Democrats would not follow Obama into battle—no matter how much Syria wasn’t Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. (Hell, it wasn’t even Grenada.) Democrats would not follow Obama to uphold human rights, advance nonproliferation, or avenge a sarin massacre hauntingly reminiscent of World War I.
And they would not follow Obama on naming Lawrence Summers the next Federal Reserve chairman. Senate Democrats, led by Sherrod Brown of Ohio, had for months organized against Summers. Brown’s office collected upward of 20 Democratic signatures urging Obama to appoint Summers’s top rival, Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen. The letter and incessant yammering from Senate Democrats infuriated Obama and transformed his preference for Summers from a notion to an imperative.
White House aides had been told (and Reid said so publicly) that if Obama nominated Summers, even pro-Yellen Democrats would vote to confirm. But that was on confirmation, not committee consideration. Senate Banking Committee Democrats refused to give up their prerogatives, and when Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced Friday that he would become the fourth committee Democrats to oppose Summers, the die was cast.
There are no “obstructionist” Republican fingerprints on the conspicuous and power-depleting defeats for Obama. He never sought a vote on Syria and therefore was not humiliated. The same is true for Summers. But Obama lost ground on both fronts and ultimately surrendered to political realities that, for the first time in his presidency, were determined by his own obdurate party.
This does not mean Obama will lose coming fights over the sequester, shutdown, or debt ceiling. But he is visibly weaker, and even his sense of victory in Syria is so unidimensional, it has no lasting sway in either Democratic cloakroom. More important, Democrats are no longer afraid to defy him or to disregard the will of their constituents—broadly defined in the case of Syria; activist and money-driving in the case of Summers. This, of course, indirectly announces the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign and an intra-party struggle over the post-Obama Democratic matrix.
This shift—a tectonic one—will give Republicans new opportunities on the fiscal issues and in coming debates over immigration and implementation of Obamacare. Republicans have never known a world where Democratic defections were so unyielding and damaging.
This does not mean Republicans will find a way to exploit these fissures. The GOP’s current agony over delaying or defunding Obamacare and the related shambling incoherence around the sequester/shutdown/debt ceiling suggest not.
Republicans could easily surrender this opportunity. But it would be the second such act. We’ve witnessed the first.
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
This article appears in the September 18, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as A September to Surrender.