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First Thoughts: Growing unease

Growing unease -- from Congress, British lawmakers -- about intervening in Syria… Russia is now sending warships to the Mediterranean… Obama to PBS: No decision has been made, but here’s the case for striking Syria… On Obama’s speech yesterday… On the GOP’s absence… Bill Clinton: Stop whining about gridlock (was he talking about Obama?)… De Blasio now the overwhelming favorite in NYC?... And happy upcoming Labor Day!

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*** Growing unease: Every day that goes by, more and more members of Congress believe that they should have a voice about whether the United States launches strikes against Syria. British lawmakers forced Prime Minister David Cameron to delay joining any military action until United Nations inspectors finish their work. This all reflects a growing unease -- here and abroad -- about intervening in Syria, especially without U.N. or Arab League backing. And there’s one obvious explanation for it: the memories of Iraq. This growing unease comes as the Obama White House will brief members of Congress later today about the chemical weapons that the Syrian regime reportedly used against its own people in its violent civil war. Meanwhile, the White House has an extra burden today thanks to TWO reports from AP and the New York Times suggesting that the intelligence on the chemical weapons attack is more circumstantial than the administration would like it to be. Bottom line: The longer the White House waits, the harder it seems to get for them to launch something. Do “shots across the bow” work? That’s what the president is arguing when it comes to what he is contemplating. But here’s what it feels like today: The White House has to prepare for the fact that the U.S. is essentially going it alone on this one. And what does the American public think? Well, first thing tomorrow morning, we’ll release new NBC poll results about Americans’ attitudes on intervening in Syria.

*** Russia is now sending warships to the Mediterranean: Another sign of it getting harder for the Obama White House: As NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported on “TODAY,” Russia says its sending ships to the Mediterranean. NBC's Albina Kovalyova in Moscow has more: “Interfax says that Russia will renew its Northern Fleet ships in the Mediterranean in the next few days. ‘The famous situation currently in the Eastern Mediterranean has called for separate correctives from us in terms of the components of the Naval Fleet groups. In the next few days it should be topped off with a large anti-submarine ship the Northern Fleet. Later, it will be supported by the Black Sea Fleet missile cruiser ‘Moskva.’ which is now completing the tasks in the North Atlantic and will soon begin transatlantic crossing in the direction of the Strait of Gibraltar.” So never mind that Obama is going to be visiting Russia in a handful of days…

*** Obama: No decision has been made, but here’s the case for striking Syria: In an interview he gave to PBS yesterday, President Obama declared that he hasn’t made a decision yet on strikes in Syria, but he also made the case for taking action. “I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.” He also explicitly blamed the Syrian regime for the chemical attack: “We have looked at all the evidence, and we do not believe the opposition possessed … or chemical weapons of that sort. We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.” Obama also acknowledged to shadow of Iraq: “We can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about.” And on what a limited strike could accomplish, Obama said: Assad “will have received a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again.” But the president added, “that doesn’t solve all the problems inside of Syria, and, you know, it doesn’t, obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria.”

*** On Obama’s speech yesterday: Turning from international affairs to domestic ones… President Obama’s speech at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was classic Obama, especially when talking about race and African-American history: He made it inclusive for all Americans. As he had telegraphed, Obama talked about economic opportunity for all. “We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires,” he said. “It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life.” And he spoke -- as he often does -- that change requires all Americans to work together. “The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together.” Obama’s way talking about race has often frustrated some supporters, especially African Americans who wish he would be a little more candid about what many African Americans believe is still an un-level playing field in many walks of life. But the president -- going all the way back to this campaign to be president of the Harvard Law Review -- has always couched his public remarks and views on race a bit. Some folks might believe he’s done it for political reasons, but given that he’s done this since before he ever thought he’d be an elected official, it’s time to realize his views reflect who he is and how he was raised.

*** On the GOP’s absence: Yes, congressional Republican leaders celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with events before they left on their August recess. Yes, the Republican National Committee held a luncheon marking the anniversary. And, yes, plenty of Republicans yesterday released statements about it. But deep down, Republicans have to regret not having one of their own speak at yesterday’s event in DC, even though organizers tried to invite them. As Woody Allen has said, 80% of success is simply showing up. But yesterday, no one from the GOP side did that.

*** Bill Clinton: Stop whining about gridlock: We have one final observation about yesterday’s speeches -- Bill Clinton’s line chiding folks to stop complaining about political gridlock. “We don’t face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore,” Clinton said. “Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock.” To whom was he referring? The audience? The GOP? President Obama? Plenty for Clintonologists to dissect. Of course, from our recollections of the 1990s, we remember the Clintons complaining plenty about partisan warfare and political obstruction. But that’s also the subtle point Clinton was trying to drive home: As bad as his experience was, he believes he overcame it through sheer persistence.

*** De Blasio the overwhelming favorite? With less than two weeks before New York’s mayoral primaries, a new Quinnipiac poll released yesterday shows that Bill de Blasio is the overwhelming favorite -- and is very close to the 40% needed to avoid a run-off. Per the poll, de Blasio gets support from 36% of likely Democratic voters, Christine Quinn gets 21%, Bill Thompson gets 20%, and Anthony Weiner gets just 8%. And here are the poll’s hypothetical match-ups: De Blasio 59%, Quinn 30%; De Blasio 52%, Thompson 36%; and Thompson 57%, Quinn 33%. We get the feeling that this race could still have one more twist or turn. After all, the front-runners haven’t held up well. We’ll be watching to see how well de Blasio hold up as the front-runner over the next 10 days…

*** Happy Labor Day! Finally, with the upcoming Labor Day holiday approaching, our First Thoughts column will officially return on Tuesday. However, be sure to check the website tomorrow morning, because we’ll have the results from our new NBC poll on Syria.

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