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First Thoughts: Obama's big gamble

Obama’s big gamble on Syria…. Arm-twisting time: Obama, Biden meet with congressional leaders at 9:45 am ET, while Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey testify on Capitol Hill at 2:30 pm ET… A divided GOP… A divided Dem Party, too… When the rhetoric doesn’t match the action… And Cuccinelli, McAulliffe begin their final sprint.

In this image released by The White House, US President Barack Obama (C) meets in the Situation Room with his national security advisors to discuss strategy in Syria on August 31, 2013. /

*** Obama’s big gamble: What a last 72 hours! One moment before the long Labor Day weekend began, it appeared certain that the United States was going to launch strikes in Syria. The next moment, President Obama reversed course and said he wanted congressional authorization before any military action, which now sets up key votes in the House and Senate as early as next week. It’s a giant gamble for the president. A loss could weaken him, especially as he heads into the tricky fall debates over the budget and debt limit. A victory, on the other hand, could possibly strengthen his hand. (Would a Congress that authorizes military action in Syria shut down the U.S. government and default just a few weeks later?) We understand why Obama opted for Congress’ approval -- without UN, UK, and Arab League backing, the administration needed some kind of cover. And our NBC poll released on Friday showed nearly 80% of Americans wanted the legislative branch to OK any military action in Syria. Yet by doing so, Obama has put a major foreign-policy decision in the hands of a body that has frustrated his entire presidency: Congress. It’s a great political story…

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*** Arm-twisting time: Here’s today’s arm-twisting activity for the upcoming Syria vote: At 9:45 am ET at the White House, President Obama and Vice President Biden meet with the leaders from the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence committees and their House counterparts before Obama departs to attend the G20 meeting in Russia. Then, at 2:30 pm ET, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which Kerry chaired before joining the Obama administration). Kerry and Hagel will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow.

*** A divided GOP: As the New York Times’ Martin writes, this upcoming authorization vote comes as a time when the GOP couldn’t be more divided on foreign affairs and national security. It offers “the best insight yet on which wing of the Republican Party — the traditional hawks, or a growing bloc of noninterventionists — has the advantage in the fierce internal debates over foreign policy that have been taking place all year.” The hawks are represented by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who said this after meeting with Obama yesterday: “A vote against that resolution by Congress, I think, would be catastrophic because it would undermine the credibility of the United States and of the president." Meanwhile, the face of the noninterventionists has become Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who said this on “Meet the Press” on Sunday: “I think it's a mistake to get involved in the Syrian civil war… I would ask John Kerry, ‘Do you think that it's less likely or more likely that chemical weapons will be used again if we bomb Assad?’ I'll ask him if it's more likely or less likely that we'll have more refugees in Jordan or that Israel might suffer attack. I think all of the bad things that you could imagine are all more likely if we get involved in the Syrian civil war.”

*** A divided Dem Party, too: But it’s not just Republicans who are divided. On Kerry’s conference call yesterday with House Democrats, Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) compared Syria to the Vietnam War, NBC’s Frank Thorp, Peter Alexander, and Kasie Hunt reported. Nolan added on the call that Obama officials were in the grip of "historic amnesia." The open question is whether a majority of House and Senate Democrats will back Obama on this authorization. Up until this point, almost anytime Obama has asked Dems to jump -- whether it’s been on budget and taxes agreements, the health-care legislation -- they’ve asked how high. Do they continue that practice?

*** When the rhetoric doesn’t match the action: Beyond the politics, here’s another question we have: Has the Obama administration’s rhetoric matched the action it wants to take? Secretary of State John Kerry has made an impassioned case for military intervention. “Bashar al-Assad now joins the list of Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein have used these weapons in time of war. This is of great consequence to Israel, to Jordan, to Turkey, to the region, and to all of us who care about enforcing the international norm with respect to chemical weapons,” Kerry said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” On the other hand, everything that the Obama administration has said about the intervention is that it would be limited. But has Team Obama made the case for limited action? If Assad is akin to Hitler and Hussein, shouldn’t the U.S. be doing everything to topple him -- immediately? But that’s not the action the administration says it’s pursuing. The rhetoric hasn’t matched the action.

*** Cuccinelli, McAuliffe begin their final sprint: Lastly, Labor Day always marks the beginning of the final sprint in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest. The Washington Post on yesterday’s Labor Day parade in Buena Vista, VA: “Along with firetrucks, a marching band and a three-kid contingent of Boy Scouts, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe shared the parade route with their statewide ticketmates and Robert Sarvis, the little-known Libertarian candidate for governor.” Meanwhile, a new Cuccinelli TV ad spotlights his role in helping to free a man who was imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by six points among likely voters, 48%-42%. And it also had Cuccinelli with a worse fav/unfav rating (35%-41%) than McAuliffe (34%-33%) -- which could explain the purpose of this new ad. 

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