Shadow Government

Obama's Syria Challenge: Overcoming His Previous Message on Intervention

Until President Barack Obama has laid out his case directly to the American people, it is too soon to declare the effort to sell his Syria policy a total failure. But the early returns are not promising. The latest poll shows that the American people overwhelmingly want Congress to vote down authorization. There is rare bipartisan consensus that the administration has not yet convinced Congress to vote against this public sentiment. Obama seems poised to lose the congressional vote, so the heavy lift of his appeal to the public Tuesday night could hardly be heavier.

This has led the leading academic expert on presidential rhetoric, George Edwards, to remind us that the bully pulpit is not all-powerful; indeed it may not be very powerful at all. Edwards notes that even presidents famous for their abilities as Great Communicators -- FDR and Ronald Reagan -- failed to persuade the American people on key policy initiatives. A president like Obama with far more limited communication skills, and serving in an exceptionally partisan environment, should not be expected to move public opinion dramatically.

Edwards is right to downplay expectations for a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, but I think this truth may mislead about the limitations on the president as messenger.

Obama's challenge this week is that he must overcome a public that, to a very great extent, has lined up with the message the president has been sending for the past five years. The difficulty Obama will face in changing the public's mind this week may well be testimony to his success in persuading the public of his worldview up until now.

For the past five years, Obama has told the American people that no good thing has come from intervening militarily in the Muslim world and that no bad thing has or will come from refraining from those military ventures -- or, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, unilaterally withdrawing from those ventures. Obama does not talk about what was achieved in Iraq beyond the achievement of "ending the war." As for Afghanistan, the soaring rhetoric of the "good war" from the 2008 campaign quickly gave way to "Afghan good enough" -- and even that lower standard is rarely invoked anymore. The American people have almost never heard Obama talk about anything worth accomplishing in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, for the past two years the Obama administration has repeatedly told the American people that there is no good military option in Syria and that restraint, however unfortunate its humanitarian consequences might be, is the only prudent course. That may help explain why the American people think there is nothing worth doing militarily in Syria.

For over a decade, the American people heard Democrats mock as "unilateralist" the coalition of the willing of some several dozen allies in Iraq. That may help explain why the American people are not impressed that the number of countries willing to join Obama's Syria venture might reach "in the double digits," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it on Sept. 7. 

Even last week, as the president started to make the case for an armed response, he repeatedly emphasized how ambivalent he was about the utility of military force. As a friend of mine observed, Obama's argument seemed to be: "The previous wars we have fought have produced unintended consequences, but I opposed those wars and so you can trust me to manage this new one without producing any unintended consequences." Obama may have persuaded more Americans about the disutility of military tools than he persuaded about his ability to wield those tools effectively.

Obama's communication challenge is to persuade the American people to ignore, or at least to set aside for a while, the message he has sent so consistently since emerging on the national stage.

This is a daunting task, and it may not even be possible, as Edwards suggests. I don't think it will be achievable unless Obama reaches a level of candor he has not yet reached. He should take a page out of President George W. Bush's playbook.

When announcing the Iraq surge in 2007, Bush proposed an abrupt about-face policy roughly as unpopular as the Syria gambit is today. After several years of promising that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," the surge amounted to an acknowledgment that much of what

Bush had been saying about how the old strategy in Iraq was going to succeed turned out not to be true. So Bush gave a remarkably candid speech that acknowledged how the previous policy was failing, and he then laid out why a dramatically different approach could work. Bush did not win converts overnight with that speech. Indeed, many people now running Syria policy -- including Obama himself -- quickly denounced the surge and declared it a failure. Bush, however, was able to secure just enough political support to sustain his oolicy, barely, until the facts on the ground proved him right.

I don't think Bush would have been able to prevail politically on the Iraq surge if he had not acknowledged where he had been wrong up until the abrupt about-face. In a similar way, I don't think Obama will be able to prevail politically on Syria unless he too acknowledges where he has been wrong.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Heavy Lifting in the Effort to Sell Syria Policy

When the 800-pound gorilla is not lifting his share, others are prone to overstrain themselves in making up the difference. That, in a belabored analogical nutshell, is what is going on with the effort to sell the Syria operation.

The 800-pound gorilla is President Barack Obama. He, far more than any of his advisors, is the one who can command the public attention and make the case for his armed intervention. He has not been totally absent, to be fair, but he also hasn't yet been effectively lifting his share.

Obama's initial decision to go to Congress sounded much like a partisan gotcha (an effect unfortunately reinforced by the way David Axelrod underlined the partisan nature of the president's decisions). Then Obama's most important comment since has been the bizarre attempt to walk back from his own responsibility for drawing the red line on Syria.

It would be hard to script out things for Obama to say that would undermine Republican support for his proposal more efficaciously than what Obama (as well as Axelrod) has already said. So instead of helping with the lift, Obama's public statements may actually be making the lift a little harder.

Enter Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (And very belatedly Vice President Joe Biden. Where has Biden been, and is he thinking that this vote imperils his 2016 chances as his 2002 vote imperiled his 2004 presidential run?) Kerry and Hagel have the very challenging task of carrying the load, and I fear they are straining themselves in the process. Kerry has a very tough assignment in wooing votes simultaneously from people who fear Obama will do too much and from people who fear Obama will do too little, which may explain why he has confused would-be supporters with contradictory claims about ground troops, whether the United States is actually trying to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels (if not, why are we promising to arm the rebels?), and whether contingencies are adequately prepared for. And Hagel, who was picked to be the "voice of reason" against military adventures in the Middle East, seems palpably uncomfortable in the role of selling the Syria plan.

Three things would help at this point. First and most importantly, it would help if the administration articulated a coherent strategy for dealing with the challenges posed by Syria and the broader region. As many, including myself, predicted, one of the consequences of Obama's surprise gambit was to expose the incoherence of the underlying strategy. In the absence of a strategy, multiple contradictory assurances to buy votes are inevitable.

Secondly, it would help if the administration could reassure us that it has a coherent political strategy. Journalist Peter Baker's report out of the G-20 summit suggests that the administration doesn't have a coherent political strategy. He writes that the White House advisors deem it "unthinkable" that the president would strike Syria if Congress voted against authorization. And, further, the White House aides say a no vote would sabotage the president's coercive diplomacy regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions and any plans to leave behind a robust force in Afghanistan. In other words, the president impulsively bet the ranch on the House. He bet the ranch of his Syria policy, his Iran policy, and his Afghanistan policy on the House of Representatives. And he has not even gotten Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to whip this vote, on which his aides say his most important regional initiatives depend. 

Finally, if Baker is accurately reporting on the political calculus in the White House and if so much hangs in the balance, then the president has to shoulder the load. He has to make it clear that he, personally, takes responsibility for this decision and for the consequences. To use a different analogy, if he is going to coax other politicians onto a rickety raft, he has to lash himself to the mast and make it clear he will not abandon them as soon as the waves get choppy. He has to go over the heads of Congress and explain directly to the American people why he is doing something that runs so apparently contrary to his partisan messaging of the past decade. Now at the eleventh hour, the White House is indicating the president intends to do this.

In short, he has to lead and apparently he might start doing that.

A president who leads just might get others to follow, provided he knows where he is going. 

Update: Obama conceded that he has a "heavy lift" before him in his press conference today, but his meandering comments likely will not lift many votes. He said that he is trying to impart a sense of urgency, but at the same time acknowledged that in his view there is no imminent threat. He insisted that this action would be limited, but then said if Syria's Bashar al-Assad responds with more attacks it will be easier to escalate still further. I expect that when the president speaks to the American people directly this coming Tuesday, he will deliver a more focused and coherent explanation of his strategy, one that dwells less on how disappointed he will be with other political leaders who shirk their responsibilities and instead dwells more on how he intends to carry out his own.

Thumbnail photo: Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images