Obama legacy on the line as Syria vote looms


With his legacy on the line, President Barack Obama will embark Monday on a full-out public relations offensive to try and persuade Congress and the American public to support military strikes against Syria.

His challenges include convincing skeptical lawmakers to approve limited bombing strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad for alleged chemical weapons attacks against his own people and rallying a war-weary American public to back yet another military action in the Middle East. 

The president will deliver a rare prime-time address on Tuesday evening, where he'll lay out his case for war. Before that, he'll sit for interviews with every major television network, an unusual use of the bully pulpit by Obama that underscores the high political stakes for the president.

At this week's outset, Obama's request for authority from Congress appears to face long odds. Here are five factors shaping the state of play in Washington this week:

How can Obama sway Americans to support military action?

Obama himself admitted that he might not win over a majority of Americans. Public opinion polls show most are not in favor of military intervention in Syria's civil war.

“It’s conceivable that at the end of the day I don’t persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do," he said Friday.

The president has relied heavily on moral grounds, pointing to the gruesome images of victims of chemical attacks in Syria, particularly children seen in videos of the aftermath. The administration and allies in Congress have circulated such images in recent days to make their case on moral grounds.


If that helps Obama persuade voters — especially loyal Democrats who’d be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on Syria — that his proposal is a reasonable exercise of power that doesn't risk a messier, broader conflict, then it may tip some wavering lawmakers in his favor.

But the president must illustrate why intervention in Syria is relevant to the United States, and assuage concerns the military action won't risk exacerbating an already-messy situation.

What he’s offering undecided supporters is, as he said Friday, “not some long, drawn-out affair; not without any risks, but with manageable risks.”

When will Congress vote?

All signs point to a Senate vote on Wednesday although a 60-vote threshold could hold up the procedure and passage is not assured. By all counts, a vast majority of the House and Senate remains undecided on whether to approve military action.

If the Senate approves the use of force, the House might tweak the language in the authorization to be even narrower, as Rep. Elijah Cummings, D- Md., said Sunday.

“There are members of the House that are working on a much more limited resolution than the one that is being considered in the Senate. I'm going to take a look at that,” Cummings said on Sunday.

Narrowing the resolution further might help win some more Democratic votes in the House, but it would then need to go back to the Senate.

At some point momentum for an attack might slow down and the president's political adversaries might get the upper hand.

But Obama himself suggested that he doesn't need to act imminently. “My military assured me that we could act today, tomorrow, a month from now,” he said Friday.

Who are the key players in Congress?

Obama faces problem in his own backyard as liberals strongly resist intervention in Syria for the same reasons many Democrats opposed the war in Iraq.

The president must work to lock down as many Democrats as possible, especially since Republicans can't be counted upon to supply enough votes to carry the day, especially in the House.

President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in Syria during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

The task falls, then, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to wrangle enough Democrats to help Obama get his Syria resolution over the finish line. Thankfully for Obama, Pelosi is a hardened veteran of similarly tough votes; she almost single-handedly willed health care reform to passage in 2010 when Obama's legislation seemed all but doomed.

The path to passage is further complicated by the GOP's internal divisions. On one side are hawks who have long favored intervention in Syria, who battle routinely with a new school of libertarian Republicans have strongly resisted intervention in Syria.

On top of that, a throng of other Republican lawmakers are eager to undercut the president politically, especially heading into major debates this fall over spending, the national debt and immigration.

What are the political stakes for Obama if the vote fails?

Put simply, no less than Obama's ability to serve as an effective president are at stake.

If Obama is rebuffed by Congress on this vote, lawmakers — especially Republicans who have been loath to cut him any slack, on anything — will be emboldened to fight the administration. And Obama's influence with Democrats is sure to wane.

Losing the Syria vote would be especially difficult, given the unfinished business before Congress this fall. Congress must act to extend government funding by Sept. 30, or risk a shutdown. Moreover, lawmakers must lift the government's borrowing limit this fall, as well.

That's not even to mention lawmakers' work toward approving comprehensive immigration reform, a top priority of the president's second term. Congress has already frustrated Obama on gun control, another key initiative.

What will the president do if Congress does not give him the authority?

Obama has not revealed what he might do. When pressed by reporters Friday he pointedly said, “You’re not getting a direct response.”

That may be partly because he doesn’t want to alienate members of Congress by hinting that the votes in Congress might end up being meaningless if he goes ahead and orders an attack even if the authorization is defeated.

But the decision to take the case to Congress almost certainly constrains any action if the legislative branch votes it down. While Obama insists he retains the power to strike Syria regardless of how Congress votes, any action in the face of rejection would be politically difficult at best.

As David Axelrod, a longtime Obama adviser said on Sunday, "The reality is, I think it’s very hard for him to act if Congress votes it down, very hard for him to act."