Meet the Press   |  September 01, 2013

Presidential persuasion: How Obama changed his mind

NBC's Chuck Todd reports on how President Barack Obama made the decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike in Syria.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> to now waiting for congress, president obama shifted his stance on military strikes in seyria at the 11th hour. chuck todd is here to take us inside the president's thinking and what changed.

>> it was remarkable. you know, ten days ago, it wasn't a matter of if but when the president was going to order a military strike to respond to the bashar al assad 's use of chemical weapons . but in the intervening days, an extraordinary series of events overseas and here at home caused the president to shift gears. it's these horrifying pictures of lifeless bodies, some of them children, clearly victims of some sort of massive chemical attack that convinced the president and his entire national security team they had to act. and so a pr campaign began.

>> the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.

>> the president, mindful of a war-weary american public, promised a limited campaign.

>> 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.

>> but as the drum beat got louder, some in congress wanted to tap the brakes. speaker boehner sent a very pointed letter dee manding answers to some 14 questions. meanwhile, british prime minister david cameron called his parliament back from vacation to debate a role from the uk for any strike, but his efforts were ill fated.

>> it is clear to me that the british parliament , reflecting the views of the british people , does not want to see british military action. i get that, and the government will act accordingly.

>> cameron's defeat had a strong impact on mr. obama, who watched it all from the west wing . whatever his misgivings, the march to war reached a new level on friday as the president dispatched his secretary of state to argue his case forcefully to the american public.

>> history will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding and decency.

>> but just a few hours after kerry's stirring churchill-like remarks, the president took a walk on the white house south lawn with his chief of staff, dennis mcdonough, and decided he needed congressional approval. earlier that morning a poll indicated nearly 80% of those surveyed said the president should go to congress first. and while the president's decision did not sit well with his national security team, by yesterday morning they were on board.

>> i have decided that the united states should take military action against syrian regime targets. i have made a second decision. i will seek authorization for the use of force from the american people 's representatives in congress.

>> this was a president, david, that was realizing he was isolated. no united nations . no arab league . and then no british support. and it was the uk moment that was sort of the straw that broke the president's back on this one, and that's why he's going to congress.

>> always concern about the legal basis for a military strike . a change at the 11th hour, as you say. chuck todd , thanks very much this morning.