President Obama’s speech on Libya on Monday is well-timed. It comes as a restive Congress returns from recess with both parties clamoring for fuller consultation and faulting aspects of the administration’s approach.
There are several hearings planned and separate briefings on Wednesday for senators and House members, which will give the administration an opportunity to thoroughly brief lawmakers. But Monday night's nationally televised address is Obama’s best chance to try to shape public opinion. Unlike the briefings, the speech will precede meetings--including Tuesday’s Senate caucus lunches, at which lawmakers discuss partywide reactions to the Libya effort--so it is a key moment for the president to make his argument.
Here is some of what Congress wants to hear from Obama.
1. Something Good. Polls show that the “rally 'round the flag” effect has been limited, leaving Operation Odyssey Dawn with dicey support, particularly from political independents. If the campaign becomes less popular, congressional attacks will accelerate. Public support for the military action, on the other hand, will limit Hill opposition. If Obama can make a clear and politically effective case for the war (i.e., one that Congress sees as effective), lawmakers will give the administration more room to operate.
“Afghanistan and Iraq taught us a lot of things. One is [that] when the country isn’t behind a military endeavor, it’s not a good thing for the country,” noted a senior Senate GOP aide, who said that his boss is tracking public views on the Libya effort.
Senate Republican leaders, in particular, kept their powder dry last week. Obama’s speech will help inform the Senate GOP's reaction after the Republican Conference meets on Tuesday.
2. A Clear Goal and a Specific Timeline. Administration efforts to address Congress’s key questions have so far been deemed inadequate by members. “Our involvement there is going to be limited, both in time and in scope,” Obama said at an event on Monday, according to a pool report.
That isn’t going to cut it for lawmakers, particularly House Republicans, who are pressing for far more detail. Members continue to ask what the main mission in Libya is. Is the ultimate objective largely humanitarian, as outlined by the U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone? Or is it to remove Muammar el-Qaddafi from power, as Obama has said? Lawmakers also want a timeline.
“The American people need to hear the president outline a clear explanation of the scope and goal of our mission in Libya, the role America and our allies will play, and what he regards as benchmarks for success,” Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Monday.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., hopes that “the president will provide details about the scope of the mission in Libya with specificity to length of our commitment and perceived endgame as it relates to unseating [Qaddafi] and ending the humanitarian crisis,” spokesman Brad Dayspring said.
“Americans are confused [about] exactly what our policy is, because on one hand, it’s humanitarian. On the other hand, they say Qaddafi must go,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a cheerleader for military action, who has attacked Obama’s approach as indecisive. “The president, I hope, will clarify that in his speech on Monday night.”
Congressional aides said that the failure of Obama and top White House officials to adequately address questions about goals and the scope of the mission will encourage legislation, perhaps linked to a Defense appropriations bill, that bars funding if congressionally imposed limits are not met.
3. How Much It Will Cost. Amid what many lawmakers are calling a budget crisis, Congress is not prepared to write off the cost of the Libya operation to the extent that it might have a few years ago. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and other lawmakers are already pushing legislation to ensure that the cost of the intervention is covered, and both parties are discussing the situation.
“The American people deserve a clear and accurate answer about the cost of the Libyan conflict,” Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, said on Monday. “I’ve been asking for accountability and for the cost of this conflict since last week, and I look forward to hearing the president answer those questions tonight.”
4. That Obama Is Listening to Congress. Congressional criticism that Obama did not adequately consult the legislative branch is widespread, but falls into at least two general categories. Lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and libertarian-leaning members such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, say that the administration should have sought explicit congressional authorization to act in the form of a vote on a declaration of war. Boehner and many other lawmakers who historically are strong backers of the president’s ability to make unilateral decisions about military intervention, have argued against any legal requirement that he consult Congress, at least if the action remains short.
But almost all lawmakers who have weighed in on the situation have suggested that the White House should have done more to keep Congress in the loop. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a statement supporting the administration’s approach, sent what appeared to be a warning on Friday that Congress takes its role in military decisions seriously and expects involvement in the decision-making process.
“As this effort moves forward, I look forward to continued consultation from President Obama and his administration in accordance with Congress’s constitutional role,” Reid said.
Obama can at least limit congressional opposition by deferring to lawmakers' constitutionally prescribed role in war-making.
5. That There’s Better Information Coming. Lawmakers will likely pepper administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at the closed-door briefings on Wednesday, and in hearings. Members will still have questions after Obama’s speech and many will be irked if the administration does not provide Congress with details beyond information disseminated publicly. The White House needs to make its case effectively in Monday night's speech, in the briefings, and in conservations with individual lawmakers. So far, the administration has not succeeded. A Boehner spokesman said that a conference call on Friday did not answer all of the speaker’s questions.
6. That It’s Working. Nothing Obama can say on Monday will outdo success on the ground by Libyan rebels. While the U.N. resolution technically gave the U.S. and its allies a mandate only to protect civilians, Odyssey Dawn is being waged to support the overthrow of Qaddafi. Gains this weekend by Libyan rebels help Obama’s case with Congress, and he will want to argue that they could not have occurred without allied support--and suggest that those successes may limit the duration of American involvement in Libya.