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White House considering prime-time address as Obama presses case for Syria

President Barack Obama addresses the nation about Iraq from the Oval Office in August 2010. Brendan Smialowski / Pool via EPA, file

President Barack Obama, arguing for an attack on Syria but confronted with a war-weary public and deep skepticism in Congress, is considering the gravest option any president has to sell a military strike — a prime-time address to the nation.

Members of Congress, during two days of occasionally combative hearings on Syria earlier this week, have pushed for the president to make a more direct case to the public before the United States punishes Syria for using chemical weapons.

Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., asked Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing Wednesday whether the president will speak from the Oval Office “in one of the coming evenings.” Kerry answered: “I have no doubt the president will.”

The White House has made no such announcement, but a spokesman, Josh Rhodes, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday that the administration was considering an address of some kind.

Public opinion polls have suggested that Obama would have some persuading to do.

Six in 10 opposed military action in a poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post and ABC News, and a Pew Research Center poll the same day found 48 percent of Americans were against a strike, with just 29 percent in favor.

An NBC News poll last week, conducted before the president took his case to Congress, found 50 percent of Americans were opposed to a strike on Syria for using chemical weapons, compared with 42 percent in favor.

A skeptical public

While Obama considers how to make his case to the public, members of Congress report that their constituents who are speaking up — calling their Washington offices or going to town hall meetings — are overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. military action.

Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican who represents the Grand Rapids area of Michigan, and whose mother was born in Syria, said he had made a dozen stops over two days, and when he asked the crowds who was opposed, most hands shot up.

Some of his constituents who spoke to NBC News said they did not think the United States should get further involved in the Middle East, after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the administration could not predict the consequences.

Democrats have echoed that hesitancy.

“I think the American public has a right to be skeptical,” Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said Thursday on the MSNBC program “Jansing & Co.” “I believe the American public has been taught to be skeptical because we had these adventures into Iraq.”

Chuck Todd of NBC News, traveling with the president at the Group of 20 summit in Russia, reported that it was not clear whether the White House might choose Sunday, Monday or Tuesday for a prime-time address. Wednesday is the anniversary of Sept. 11.

The Hollywood Reporter reported that Obama canceled a fund-raiser planned for Los Angeles on Monday night at the home of a co-creator of the sitcom “Friends” and her husband, a composer.

The White House said the president would stay in Washington to work on the crisis.

When, where, why

Obama has given two Oval Office addresses, both in prime time in 2010 — one after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and one to declare the end of combat operations in Iraq.

Two years ago, when the president made the case to the public for military action to stop the aggression of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, he spoke from the East Room of the White House in the afternoon. Ten days later, in the early evening, he spoke about Libya from a flag-bedecked rostrum at the National Defense University.

He announced the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in a late-night address from the East Room.

On Saturday the president spoke from the Rose Garden to announce: “I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.

An Oval Office speech on Syria could provide political cover for Democrats in favor of striking Syria, many of whom were elected in part because they opposed the Iraq war. Other Democrats say it’s not time.

“I don’t think we’re there,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Thursday. “I think that the president right now needs to be speaking to our allies, because we need to be looking at how we can deter the further use of chemical weapons by Assad himself.”

She was referring to Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader, who the United States says ordered a chemical strike on a rebel-held neighborhood Aug. 21 that left more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, gassed to death.

And at least one Republican is pushing for an address: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who on Wednesday was one of the 10 votes that passed a resolution in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorizing force.

“He’s got to go on national television,” McCain said Tuesday. “I told him yesterday, I said, ‘Sit behind that desk, look at the camera and say, here’s the pictures of these dead children. Here’s the hundred thousand that have been massacred. Here’s what’s going on.”

“These children didn’t die because of wounds — look at them,” McCain continued. “But most Americans don’t know. They don’t understand. They don’t know what the strategy is. They don’t know what the policy is.”

Kasie Hunt, Kelly O’Donnell and Chuck Todd of NBC News contributed to this report.