First Thoughts: Obama's all-out blitz

Obama’s all-out blitz… Crack that whip: There are still LOTS of undecided lawmakers… Examining the Plan Bs if there aren’t the votes… Capitol Hill intrigue... Is U.S. intervention even legal without United Nations backing?... NBC/WSJ poll results on Syria come out tomorrow morning… Looking ahead to tomorrow’s “Super Tuesday” -- Obama speech, NYC mayoral primaries, CO recalls, Jeb & Hillary… And de Blasio remains the Dem front-runner in NYC, per two new polls.


*** Obama’s all-out blitz: In what has become arguably his most difficult effort to lobby Congress in his four-plus years in office, President Obama has begun an all-out blitz to change the minds of skeptical lawmakers -- and a skeptical American public -- who are unconvinced about U.S. intervention in Syria. Yesterday, he dispatched Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to go on all the Sunday shows, including “Meet the Press.” Also yesterday, Obama joined Vice President Biden in dining with six Republican senators to sell them on the intervention. Today, the president sits down for an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and five other networks, while National Security Adviser Susan Rice delivers a speech on Syria to the New America Foundation at 12:30 pm ET. In addition, the pro-Israel group AIPAC plans “to blanket Capitol Hill,” and Hillary Clinton is slated to talk about Syria at a White House event today on wildlife preservation. Obama caps off all of this activity with his address to the nation on Tuesday night. Whew... So it’s shaping up to be an intense and jam-packed next two days for the Obama administration. And let’s not forget what appears to be coordinated leaks of the Syrian videos. Essentially, the White House is acting as if Obama’s presidency is on the line with this congressional vote. That may sound like an exaggeration, but he’s got a lot more on the line than simply his Syria policy.

*** Crack that whip: But will all of this activity be enough? According to NBC’s preliminary whip count, 24 House members support intervention in Syria, 106 oppose it, and 303 are undecided. (Note: NBC’s count doesn’t include those who are leaning one way or another.) In the Senate, 20 support intervention, 16 oppose it, and 64 are undecided. So there are A LOT of undecided votes out there for the administration. But then again, the number of “yes” votes is very, very small right now -- especially in the House.

*** The Plan Bs? What happens if there aren’t the votes? As it turns out, there are some “Plan B” options the administration and its allies could consider. They could wait to get more international support (Saudi Arabia came on board yesterday). There also could be a watered-down resolution, perhaps TWO different resolutions that pass -- one that gives the president authority in the Senate and one that tells him to COME BACK to the House after the U.N. investigation is complete. And as we wrote on Friday, the congressional leaders -- Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, even John Boehner -- won’t let a “no” vote happen on the floor, which would badly wound Obama and the nation’s foreign policy. If the votes aren’t there, they won’t be a vote on the authorization. Bank on it.

*** Capitol Hill intrigue: Of course, there’s other intrigue on Capitol Hill. If there’s a vote, which way does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell go? Does he support the authorization, which would put him at odds with primary opponent Matt Bevin? Or does he oppose it, becoming the only major congressional leader to do so? Then you have the administration lobbying the Congressional Black Caucus (Susan Rice, in addition to her New America Foundation speech, speaks to the CBC today.) And then there’s the 2014 politics. Besides McConnell’s ’14 considerations, you have Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) opposing the authorization, while GOP opponent Tom Cotton (R-AR) supports it. The politics of Syria on the Hill is tricky. Are there some lawmakers who are reacting based on pure politics, of course. Realize it’s a lot harder to OPPOSE the president as a Democrat and to SUPPORT the president as a Republican. There are some House Republicans who will simply oppose whatever the president is for, but what the White House is hoping is that the AIPAC blitz and turning the vote into a referendum on support for Israel (and against Iran) can sway some other Republicans. As for the pitch to wayward Democrats, the most politically crass and the one that MIGHT be the most effective (though it can sound desperate) is the idea that the presidency’s political standing is on the line.

*** Is U.S. intervention even legal? Here’s additional question for the administration: Is intervention in Syria -- without United Nations backing -- even legal? Two Yale University professors, Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, recently wrote that U.S. intervention would break international law, because Syria doesn’t present a direct threat to the U.S. or one of its NATO allies. “Most of international law relies not on force for its enforcement, but on the collective power of nations to deprive states of the benefits of membership in a system of states. Mr. Obama can cut off any remaining government contracts with foreign companies that do business with Mr. Assad’s regime. He can work with Congress to do much more for Syrian rebels and refugees — including providing antidotes to nerve agents, which are in short supply. He can use his rhetorical power to shame and pressure Russia and China.” Indeed, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) argued on “Meet the Press” yesterday that Obama hadn’t exhausted his diplomatic options. “We ought to be rallying the world,” he said. “We ought to be rallying the world, because all the world agrees … you shouldn't use chemical weapons. And make sure that Russia knows that they're complicit in this. This is what we need to be doing.” If you want to understand why the president decided he needed to go to Congress, this was one of the reasons. He didn’t have a strong international legal justification, and he couldn’t afford to have weak legal standing both domestically and internationally.

*** NBC/WSJ poll results on Syria come out tomorrow: And lastly, there’s public opinion. What do Americans think about intervention? And have their minds changed at all after a week of debate on Syria? Well, we’ll have a new NBC/WSJ poll answering these questions -- and more -- first thing tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, a new CNN poll shows that 59% oppose Congress passing a resolution to authorize military action in Syria. But as Foreign Affairs’ Jonathan Tepperman reminds us, public opinion on war and military force can change, especially after the fighting begins. “The relationship between public opinion and foreign policy is actually quite complicated and fluid,” he writes. “A look at other recent conflicts reveals that far from being immutable, Americans’ views of armed intervention can shift quickly and dramatically — and that there’s a great deal a president can do to bring a skeptical public on board.”

*** Super Tuesday: We have to underscore how big a day tomorrow will be in American politics. There’s Obama’s primetime speech on Syria; the Democratic and Republican primaries in New York’s mayoral contest; the two recall races of Democratic state senators in Colorado; and Jeb Bush presenting an award to Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia -- which has conservative groups fuming at the former Republican Florida governor.

*** De Blasio remains the big front-runner: Speaking of that New York City mayoral contest, a new NBC-4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll finds Bill de Blasio leading the Democratic primary with support from 36% of likely voters -- so very close to that 40% threshold to avoid a run-off. Following him are Bill Thompson and Christine Quinn tied at 20%, and Anthony Weiner at just 7%. A Quinnipiac poll, meanwhile, has similar results -- de Blasio 39%, Thompson 25%, Quinn 18%, and Weiner 6%. And we wonder if Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comment that de Blasio has been running a “racist” campaign all but seals the deal for de Blasio; Bloomberg may have actually helped de Blasio avoid a run-off. As for Weiner, he told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that he believes he still has a chance of winning. “Before we do post mortems on what happens if I lose, let's have us have the campaign and see if I win and then we'll move forward from there,” he said. “And after I serve two terms, perhaps we can have that conversation.” When Guthrie followed up saying if Weiner was really saying that with a straight face, he replied: “Well, in the highest of the highs, the lowest of the lows in this camera, when there are 15 cameras from Malaysian shouting questions at me, I'm still talking about issues every single day.”

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