Higher Calling

The Reluctant Salesman: How President Obama Can Win Enough Votes on Syria

For a president with rhetorical skills, Obama’s challenge on Tuesday is to convince us that the madness in Syria must end now.

A president’s prestige is generally not committed to anything unless the outcome is assured. Not since President Obama’s quixotic trip to Copenhagen in 2009 to secure the Olympics for Chicago has there been anything quite so seat-of-the-pants as the White House’s push for congressional support to back the use of force in Syria. In the grand scheme, of course, a rebuff from the Olympic Committee after flying on Air Force One to Europe was a minor embarrassment compared with what President Obama faces should the Senate and the House vote down his request for a resolution of force after his administration’s full court press over the past week.

“Losing this will shatter his presidency,” says William Galston with the Brookings Institution. “He didn’t have to go to Congress but once he did, it’s hard for me to believe that if you consult the people’s representatives and they say no, that he can act.”

Campaign lore has it that Obama is at his best when his back is to the wall. Aides cite his comeback after losing New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton in 2008, the speech on race in Philadelphia that salvaged his campaign, his recovery last year after being savaged by Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate. While the outlook is grim going into next week with various tallies documenting what a hard, heavy lift Obama faces, the White House still has some cards to play.

A lot is riding on Obama’s speech Tuesday evening, and for a president with rhetorical skills, his challenge is to make a convincing case to the public for military action—more convincing than the one he’s been making in private because too many lawmakers are saying it’s not enough. Obama has always been a reluctant salesman; it’s the aspect of his role that he is least comfortable with, and there’s some irony in the fact he’s got to persuade Democrats wary of backing military force for the same reasons that if he were still in the Senate he would voice.

Gaming out where the votes are, there is guarded optimism that reaching the filibuster-proof 60 votes is within reach in the Senate. To compensate for Democratic defections like David Pryor in Arkansas, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and possibly Ed Markey in Massachusetts, upward of 10 Republicans would have to join with the Democrats. There are more traditionally hawkish Republicans in the Senate than in the House, and in addition to John McCain and Lindsay Graham, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is playing a responsible role, and Jeff Flake of Arizona appears to be stepping up to form a new team of emerging leaders on foreign policy.

On the other side are the Tea Party isolationists led by Rand Paul. “I can’t wait for the big smackdown between McCain and Rand Paul, who gets more support (in the GOP caucus),” says Galston. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 25 Rand Paul and 20 McCain.” Tea Party adherents like Paul think we spend way too much on the military, and that what happens in Syria is not America’s problem. Yet there is also an undeniable element of anti-Obama sentiment swaying the GOP. White House vote counters cite four Republican senators who backed military intervention as recently as a week ago and changed their position after Obama called for airstrikes. They are Florida’s Marco Rubio, Texas’s John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Oklahoma’s James Inhofe.

Even so, the Senate is not the roadblock; the House is the highest, hardest hurdle for the Obama team. A lot of the consciousness of the modern Democratic Party was formed in reaction to George W. Bush and Iraq, says Galston. Everything is seen through the prism of Iraq, and the Iraq syndrome functions much the same as the Vietnam syndrome, making Obama’s challenge more than about Syria, but about banishing an entire mindset. The Out of Iraq caucus in the House, created in 2005, boasted 73 members, all Democrats. “Progressives are not comfortable with force,” says Brian Katulis with the liberal Center for American Progress, which nonetheless is backing Obama’s call for the authority to use limited and targeted force. The biggest group he finds in Congress could be labeled, “Why should we do anything at all? What’s our national interest in this? People are just pragmatic, asking what’s in it for us.”

When you do the math, as Galston has done, Obama will probably get no more than a fifth of the Republican Party in the House, which would be 47 votes (out of 233) and even that might be high, which means Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi would need to deliver 170 votes, or 85 percent of the Democratic caucus. She’s not there yet, but it’s not impossible. One crucial bloc of votes is the Black Caucus, which has 43 members, enough to sink the resolution or put it over the top.

“Once you get beyond the argument about the dead children and the U.S. role in the world, it comes down to saving the presidency itself and not allowing Barack Obama to fail,” says Paul Equale, a Washington lawyer and longtime Democratic activist. “That argument is best made to the Black Caucus, and that’s where you go for those votes.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice will be briefing the Black Caucus on Monday, one in a blizzard of briefings directed at influencing a vote for a resolution that many members might say privately they would like to see pass; they just don’t want to be the one casting the vote that could come back and haunt them in the next election.

Congress feels jammed. Obama boxed himself in, and then he dragged them into the box with him. Presidents are at their best when they are calling the country to some higher purpose. This isn’t about oil; it’s about a weapon that has been blacklisted since after World War I. Why should the U.S. act? Because we’re the world’s oldest functioning democracy, and this president, when he is issuing a clarion call, is potentially at his best. And if he can move the public, he can move Congress.