First Thoughts: A way out – for everyone

A way out -- for everyone -- as Obama addresses the nation on Syria at 9:00 pm ET… Public’s message to Obama per new NBC/WSJ poll: “Stay out” of Syria… Party affiliation is destiny… A messy process? Or just S.O.P. in this new world order?... The rest of the activity of this “Super Tuesday”: NYC mayoral primaries, Colorado recalls, Jeb & Hillary in Philly, and Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill.

*** A way out -- for everyone: Yes, President Obama is still addressing the nation on Syria from the White House’s East Room right after 9:00 pm ET. And yes, he will be making his case for military intervention to deter Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. But Obama also will certainly acknowledge yesterday’s potential diplomatic breakthrough with Russia’s assist -- having the international community take control of Syria’s chemical weapons. It’s even possible he could seek support for a new authorization (similar to Manchin-Heitkamp) with an ultimatum for getting control of these chemical weapons. “I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially,” Obama told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie yesterday about the potential breakthrough. “But between the statements that we saw from the Russians, the statement today from the Syrians, this represents a potentially positive development.” This Syria story over the last three weeks has been a political loser for everyone: Obama, the U.S. Congress, Russia, and of course the Syrian regime. So this potential breakthrough represents a way out -- for everyone. This hasn’t been elegant, the public display of handwringing hasn’t been reassuring, and obviously this issue could end up with more twists and turns. But to truly understand why there is a rush for the Obama administration to cautiously embrace the deal, look no further than our new NBC/WSJ poll…

People protest against a US military intervention in Syria in front of the Cannon House Office Building near the US Capitol in Washington on September 9, 2013. Nicholas Kamm / Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images

*** The public’s message to Obama: “Stay out” of Syria: When you read political polls, they often contain mixed messages. One set of numbers can make your side look bad; another set can make it look good. But that’s NOT the case in our new NBC/WSJ poll on Syria. The public is sending two unequivocal messages from Americans ahead of Obama’s speech. One, they don’t want the U.S. to intervene militarily. According to the poll, 58% say their member of Congress should vote against the authorization approving military action in Syria, just 24% believe such action is in the United States’ national interest, and 74% say the U.S. should focus more on its domestic problems than democracy and freedom abroad. And two, they disagree with how Obama has handled this entire situation. Only 28% approve of the president’s handling of Syria, which is a 7-point decline from an NBC poll released late last month. (Think about that: The Commander-in-Chief doesn’t even have a third of the country approving of his handling on Syria.). So opposition has GROWN after Obama asked for Congress’ approval, and after the administration began waging an intense campaign to win congressional support. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) calls the president’s upcoming speech a “tall order” given these numbers. “To a certain degree, the American red line is: ‘Stay out.’” That sentiment is reflected by NBC’s whip count of the authorization Congress is considering. In the Senate, 22 favor it, 22 oppose it, and 56 are undecided. In the House, 24 support it, 130 are against it, and 279 are undecided.

*** Party affiliation is destiny: Especially striking from the poll is that two-thirds of Republicans, two-thirds of independents, and even a plurality of Democrats want their member of Congress to vote against military action in Syria. So the opposition here is widespread. That said, the NBC/WSJ poll shows how party affiliation -- i.e., whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House -- has shaped these opinions. Back in 2005 when George W. Bush was in office, 60% of GOP respondents agreed with the statement that the America must promote democracy and freedom around the world, rather than focus on domestic problems at home. Now? Just 19% of Republicans believe this. (By comparison, the Democratic numbers have been pretty consistent: In 2005, 14% agreed with focusing on democracy and freedom abroad; now it’s 28%.) In addition, the poll finds that 50% of Democrats say that the country is safer since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, versus just 33% of Republicans who think that. But back in Sept. 2002, those numbers were reversed -- 48% of GOPers said the country was safer, compared with just 32% of Democrats. It’s a reminder that Americans’ attitudes about politics often depend on if “their guy” is sitting in the Oval Office.

*** A messy process? Or just S.O.P. in this new world order? However, both Democrats and Republican can probably agree on this: The entire process here hasn’t been pretty. It’s something that Politico writes about today. “Barack Obama’s unsteady handling of the Syria crisis has been an avert-your-gaze moment in the history of the modern presidency — highlighting his unsettled views and unattractive options in a way that has caused his enemies to cackle and supporters to cringe.” But here’s our question: Has the process been messy because of Obama, or because this is just the reality of a more-transparent world where information -- and opinion -- travels so quickly? The fact is, this does appear to be the new normal. (Ask yourself: How would have today’s media covered Bay of Pigs or even the Cuban Missile Crisis?) No longer can presidents hand-wring BEHIND the scenes; every incremental development is debated in the media. It’s not just U.S. politicians who conduct themselves this way; it’s world leaders, too. Clearly, the Washington establishment is uncomfortable with how the president has looked so wobbly and haphazard in some of his decision making process. After all, every major development on Syria has looked, at times, as if the administration was “winging it” -- from the initial “red line” declaration to the decision to seek congressional authorization to yesterday’s Kerry answer on Syria giving up chemical weapons. But given the media climate, and the automatic public skepticism that is built in these days with anything a politician says, is it possible that this is the new normal? It certainly appears so. Then again, this doesn’t excuse the White House for what has been a muddled case against Syria from the get-go.

*** The rest of the activity this “Super Tuesday”: Obama’s speech isn’t the only political event on this busy Tuesday. New York City voters will decide on the Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor. Getting 40% is needed to avoid an Oct. 1 run-off, and the question is whether Democratic front-runner Bill de Blasio can reach that percentage. Polls close in New York at 9:00 pm ET. Also, Colorado holds recall elections for two Democratic state senators who voted on key gun-control legislation the state passed earlier this year after the Newtown, CT shootings. In addition, Jeb Bush will be presenting a “Liberty Medial” award to Hillary Clinton at an event tonight in Philadelphia at 7:00 pm ET. The Republican National Committee has put out research on the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attack. And finally, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) will participate at a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill to call for the defunding of the health-care law.

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