Obama Bets the House on Syria — and Is Losing

Early reaction shows the president has a long way to go to win congressional approval for a military strike.

President Barack Obama, flanked by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks to media in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before a meeting with members of Congress to discuss the situation in Syria. 
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 3, 2013, 12:33 p.m.

Fa­cing the pro­spect of wa­ging war against Syr­ia uni­lat­er­ally, Pres­id­ent Obama be­latedly gambled that Con­gress could give him some polit­ic­al cov­er for a risky de­cision. He’s not likely to get it, based on the ini­tial re­ac­tion from House mem­bers from both parties.

Des­pite the show of sup­port from House Speak­er John Boehner and House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi on Tues­day af­ter­noon, that’s not go­ing to move many votes. Neither is put­ting any pres­sure on their mem­bers to vote for a mil­it­ary strike against Syr­ia des­pite their per­son­al sup­port. Both are call­ing it a vote of con­science and aren’t ur­ging mem­bers to join them.

That means mem­bers will be freer to take the polit­ic­ally safe route of op­pos­ing a war that a fresh round of polling shows a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans op­pose. In a sur­vey re­leased Tues­day, Pew found a near-ma­jor­ity (48 per­cent) op­posed con­duct­ing mil­it­ary air­strikes against Syr­ia, with just 29 per­cent sup­port­ing. More omin­ous for the pres­id­ent, Demo­crats were more op­posed than Re­pub­lic­ans to any mis­sion in Syr­ia — by a ro­bust 19-point mar­gin. Like­wise, a new Wash­ing­ton Post/ABC sur­vey found 59 per­cent op­pos­ing mil­it­ary strikes, with in­de­pend­ents op­pos­ing in­ter­ven­tion by 66 per­cent to 30 per­cent. In a sign of the pres­id­ent’s weak pub­lic case for in­ter­ven­tion, nearly two-thirds sup­por­ted the (hy­po­thet­ic­al) case for in­ter­ven­tion last Decem­ber.

That de­gree of pub­lic hes­it­ance is be­ing re­flec­ted in mem­bers’ re­ac­tions. The Wash­ing­ton Post found 105 rep­res­ent­at­ives in the House op­posed or lean­ing to­ward op­pos­i­tion, with just 16 pub­licly sup­port­ing.

For vote-count­ing pur­poses, the most im­port­ant di­vide isn’t between hawks and doves. It’s between mem­bers in tough dis­tricts and safe seats. With mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion un­pop­u­lar, few at-risk mem­bers are stick­ing their necks out to sup­port the pres­id­ent, even those from his own party. These mem­bers are acutely sens­it­ive to pub­lic opin­ion, and self-sur­viv­al is of­ten more im­port­ant than tak­ing one for the team.

In­deed, op­pos­i­tion already is wide­spread among mem­bers in swing dis­tricts. Among Demo­crats, Rep. Rick No­lan of Min­nesota ac­cused Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry of suf­fer­ing his­tor­ic­al am­ne­sia. Rep. Tammy Duck­worth of Illinois, who lost sev­er­al limbs fight­ing in the Ir­aq war, was one of the first Demo­crats to come out against in­ter­ven­tion. Rep. Scott Peters of Cali­for­nia, one of the most vul­ner­able Demo­crats up in 2014, hin­ted at op­pos­i­tion, cit­ing his con­stitu­ents’ war wear­i­ness. Rep. John Gara­mendi of Cali­for­nia has “deep, deep con­cern.” Com­bine that with already strong an­ti­war sen­ti­ment in the Demo­crat­ic Caucus — about 40 per­cent op­posed the Ir­aq war res­ol­u­tion in 2002, with a more hawk­ish caucus and polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment — and it’s a for­mula for mass de­fec­tions.

Don’t ex­pect much sup­port from Re­pub­lic­ans, either, des­pite Boehner’s sup­port and the party’s tra­di­tion of hawk­ish­ness dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. Factor in the in­cent­ives to op­pose Obama at all costs and a rising tide of liber­tari­an­ism with­in the caucus, and it’s hard to see a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port­ing the pres­id­ent. When Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, who gen­er­ally sup­ports an act­ive Amer­ic­an pres­ence over­seas, is on the fence, it’s a clear sign Re­pub­lic­ans won’t be run­ning to Obama’s aid. Oth­er ex­amples abound: Rep­res­ent­ing a bell­weth­er seat, Ir­aq war vet Chris Gib­son of New York was an early Syr­ia dove. Rep. Scott Ri­gell of Vir­gin­ia, in a mil­it­ary-heavy swing Tide­wa­ter dis­trict, has also been an out­spoken skep­tic.

As pub­licly con­fid­ent as the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been over win­ning a vote, the math for pas­sage was al­ways go­ing to be ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult. Surely the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­duc­ted its own polling that con­firmed the de­gree of pub­lic hes­it­ance, if not out­right op­pos­i­tion, to an in­ter­ven­tion. And it’s hard to be­lieve the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pec­ted con­gres­sion­al ac­qui­es­cence, giv­en his dis­missive ap­proach to deal­ing with House Re­pub­lic­ans. Build­ing a strong re­la­tion­ship with Con­gress is not this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s forte.

While sev­er­al pun­dits gen­er­ously in­ter­preted Obama’s ac­tion as a pre­ced­ent to rein in his own war-wa­ging ex­ec­ut­ive powers, the real­ity was that his punt­ing to Con­gress was an ex­er­cise in re­spons­ib­il­ity-avoid­ance. As Politico‘s John Har­ris and Jonath­an Al­len put it, “The delay is be­ing in­ter­preted in both parties, not as evid­ence of a prin­cipled be­lief in con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity, but as Obama’s at­tempt to share own­er­ship if his Syr­ia de­cisions go awry.” Former White House ad­viser Dav­id Axel­rod con­firmed as much, ex­citedly tweet­ing that Con­gress was now “the dog that caught the car” after the pres­id­ent’s Sat­urday ad­dress.

But by go­ing to Con­gress for au­thor­iz­a­tion, Obama has a lot to lose. After do­ing little to make the case for mil­it­ary ac­tion, he now has to per­son­ally lobby his own party’s waver­ing mem­bers and per­suad­able hawks, with little lever­age at his dis­pos­al. If Con­gress turns him down, he could blame House Re­pub­lic­ans for polit­ic­al cov­er. This time, however, it would come at the ex­pense of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crum­bling cred­ib­il­ity on for­eign policy.

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