A September to Surrender: Syria and Summers Spell Second-Term Slump

And Senate Democrats were Obama’s undoing in both cases.

President Barack Obama, joined by Congressional leaders, speaks to the media in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, prior to a meeting with members of Congress to discuss the situation in Syria. From left are, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the president, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif.
National Journal
Major Garrett
Sept. 17, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

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.

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