The fate of President Obama’s second term hangs on his Tuesday speech to the nation about Syria.
Ever since his surprising announcement on Aug. 31 that he would seek Capitol Hill’s approval for a strike on Syria, votes have piled up against the idea, especially in the House.
The president might yet turn the tide. But, if he does not do so, experts say the damage would be far reaching. “If he loses this vote, not only is he flummoxed in domestic policy but he’s frustrated in what he wants to do on foreign policy,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It would be kind of shocking to the political system.”
Syria could be Obama’s Hurricane Katrina, condemning him to irrelevance at the same point as his predecessor, in the first September of his second term. Humiliation would come just as Obama is girding to battle Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling, funding the government, implementing ObamaCare and pushing an immigration bill through the House.
His leverage in those fights stems from his reelection and a Democratic caucus that has found political advantage in supporting his agenda.
But he is out on a limb over Syria. Nearly 60 percent of the public opposes a military strike, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week.
If Congress rebuffed his request for support, it would compound defeats he has already suffered this year on gun control and on an economic plan that never gained traction despite Obama’s nationwide campaigning this summer.
“Politics is a lot like sports — momentum matters,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “If you get good positive momentum, you can achieve your goals. But if you lose, then you start going backwards. For the president, he starts off with all the indicators being there won’t be a lot of support, and if he wins this it will be by the narrowest of margins, so it’s very risky.”
A presidential loss would embolden House Republicans already disinclined to give ground in autumn’s battles.
“It would be a tremendous blow to the president’s legacy that ...Congress refuses his request for an authorization to act on the world stage,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “We’re in uncharted territory. He’d have a weakened hand and be seen as a weak leader going into a very hard fight.”
The president himself acknowledged Friday that he “knew this was going to be a heavy lift.” He was aware, he said, that he was “elected to end wars and not start them,” and he ruefully conceded that he had a “pretty good sense” of how unpopular strikes would be.
“I understand the skepticism,” Obama said. “I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through systematically making the case to every senator and every member of Congress, and that is what we’re doing.”
Tuesday’s televised address from the White House will be crucial. It will be the administration’s closing argument after a week courting lawmakers.
While traveling in Europe this week, Obama has worked the phones, calling lawmakers that the White House sees as critical to securing a winning coalition. He canceled a Monday fundraising trip to Los Angeles, and a White House aide said he would use the time instead to make his case.
Vice President Biden gave a dinner for a dozen Republican senators on Sunday to discuss the Syria authorization resolution. White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough will meet the House Democratic caucus on Tuesday.
Obama will find it hard to convince the public that a military attack on Syria is justified and important to their security, Devine said, adding, “It has to be tangible and persuasive and emotive to change minds and get people invested, and that’s what’s necessary to break through.”
Another element of that effort is the president’s decision to give interviews to six major TV networks on Monday.
Democrats say the White House’s strategy is high risk, but also high reward.
If Obama succeeds, he’ll have the authority of a wartime president, and a major victory headed into budget negotiations. So the outreach effort to lawmakers, who often complain that the White House is standoffish, could also pay dividends.
“You could see the political tension ease a bit because you’ve had the president dealing with [House Speaker John] Boehner, dealing with some of the Republican leadership on Syria,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “They aren’t going to be entering the debate on the debt ceiling and funding the government after several months of not dealing with one another.”
Moreover, Obama’s bets are partly hedged by the willingness of top Republicans, including Boehner (Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to support him. “It’s not just the president who has skin in the game here,” Thornell said.
Still, it is Obama who has the most to lose. Boehner and Cantor said they would not whip on the Syrian resolution, and a big loss in the House would be seen as a defeat for Obama, not for them.
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said Obama’s leverage in the looming fiscal fights would suffer if Congress shoots down the Syria resolution.
If Obama doesn’t come into those debates with some momentum, Moran said, then “the Republicans will have the upper hand.”
“He’s got to have some leverage and he’s got to be able to use the bully pulpit on those issues,” Moran said Friday in a phone interview. “It’s not just his status with Congress, it’s his status with the public.”
This story was updated at 11:25 a.m.