Obama Ends Longest Week at Crossroads on Syria

PHOTO: Barack ObamaPlayPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
WATCH Kerry: Dialogue Has Been Constructive

If you thought this week has been one of the more precarious of President Obama's second term, you're not alone.

It's not hard to find recriminations of Obama's handling of the crisis in Syria, even among his supporters.

After deciding to go to Congress for authorization to strike Syria for a brazen chemical weapons attack on its own people, Obama has since failed to get even close to the amount of support he needs among lawmakers.

"I think this is an extraordinarily difficult moment," said Kathleen Hall Jameson, a professor of presidential communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"You've got a public that is very skeptical and an international community that is very reluctant to get involved and a country that is keenly aware that you have to make tradeoffs because we don't have enough money to fund all the things we have to fund in government. It's a tough sell."

Kerry Spars With Russia in Syria Talks

On domestic policy, Obama's choice to pursue military intervention has essentially frozen his domestic agenda.

It might be the beginning of a second-term slump for a president who has in the past always seemed to escape, relatively unscathed, from even the most intractable conflicts at home and abroad.

The White House insists that they have had a great week because the Russians and Syrians are on board with a diplomatic resolution because of Obama's relentless push for military action.

And he might yet escape from this one. In the meantime, however, it appears he has staked everything -- his reputation at home and abroad -- on the success of diplomacy with Russia.

Here are five reasons this might have been Obama's longest week:


He has pulled nearly every media lever available to him, saturating the airwaves with appearances on every TV network -- two nights in a row -- to make his case for action against Syria. But President Obama and his administration have seemed unable to get a coherent message campaign off the ground. It has appeared at times as though the administration has even been flying by the seat of its pants through an international crisis.

Syria, Airstrikes and the News of the Week

After a tense few days with his finger on the trigger, Obama took an unexpected turn toward diplomacy thanks to a reportedly "unscripted" line from Secretary of State John Kerry. The nation's top diplomat suggested at a London news conference that Syria's Bashar al-Assad could avoid a military strike if he turned over all of his chemical weapons.

His aides downplayed the offer as "rhetorical," if off-the-cuff; Kerry said the next day he "didn't misspeak."

Russia pounced on the statement and sparked this latest round of last-ditch talks. But then there's the practical issue of whether the administration believes Syria's chemical weapons can even be removed.

Kerry himself said it "can't be done, obviously." Days later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said "certainly, it's possible," to get the job done. "No one would suggest that because it's difficult, we shouldn't pursue it," he said.

And then there's the lingering fact that Obama finds himself under pressure to act against Assad because of the off-the-cuff "red line" he laid down one year ago. While Assad had used chemical weapons many times before the Aug. 21 attack, Obama never felt compelled to act. It might be his own promise of "enormous consequences" that now have him in a corner, forced to put the legitimacy of his entire presidency on the line to corral support among lawmakers and a skeptical U.S. public for a military response.


President Obama and senior White House staff made direct, personal appeals to more than 450 members of Congress on Syria action, more outreach to Congress since the push for the Affordable Care Act. But if the vote were held today, it would certainly fail.

It's the latest piece of Obama-backed, second-term legislation that has been mired on Capitol Hill. He pushed for immigration overhaul, but the legislation passed the Senate only to be stalled in the House of Representatives with no obvious path forward.

He pushed for gun control after the Newtown Massacre left 26 children and elementary school teachers and staff dead, but Congress rejected a background check bill pushed by the White House.

The other shoe fell this week. Two Democratic lawmakers who supported gun control legislation in the Colorado State Senate were recalled in a National Rifle Association-backed campaign, despite efforts from Democratic groups and unions to save them.

Obama's Syria policy has frozen progress on all other congressional priorities, including an all-important bill to fund the government for the remainder of the year and the debt ceiling, which will be reached next month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lamented Thursday as he closed the Senate for business, "This was a wasted week."


Obama's Tuesday primetime speech was the venue that many thought he would use to make his case for military action convincingly to the American public. But with more than 32 million people watching, according to Nielson, many thought it was a missed opportunity.

Indeed, it inflamed some of the few supporters of his military plan and the many opponents.

"The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation," Sen. Bob Corker, a supporter of Obama's push for military action, vented to CNN Wednesday. "It's just a complete muddlement."

Professor Jameson said the speech was part of a failed communication strategy on the part of the White House.

"The speech is well written, the speech is well argued, it was delivered well; the problem is the speech didn't need to be given," Jameson said. "The fact is the speech was decided on before ongoing events overtook the need for the speech."

A former Obama spokesman wrote that the primetime address actually played to one of Obama's greatest weakness, not his greatest strength.

"When Obama squares to the lens, he seems to lose grasp of the energy that makes him an engaging speaker at other times," Reid Cherlin wrote this week in The New Republic. "He may be able to melt a crowd with an Al Green line, but when he addresses us directly through the screen, he is nearly always flat and lifeless.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, not one to miss an opportunity to vie for the upper hand, penned an op-ed in The New York Times that cited the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, suggesting that Obama should abandon "American exceptionalism."

"It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States," Putin wrote. "Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it."

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer suggested this week that the editorial directly reflected on Obama's leadership.

"These are the fruits of a completely incompetent, epically incompetent foreign policy diplomacy by Obama," Krauthammer said on Fox News. "I mean, this, what we're seeing here is Putin so confident of himself after Obama had to acquiesce to this face-saving negotiation that he could actually engage in this."

Despite Putin's suggestion, contrary to U.S. evidence, that Assad didn't use chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack, Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said when a U.N. report on Syria is release next week, Putin might suddenly appear far less in control of the situation.

"It may appear that [Putin] has the upper hand now, but if there's more evidence to suggest the Russian position about what happens on Aug. 21 is untenable," Kuchins said, "then the upper hand comes back to us."