Will Obama Strike Syria Without Congressional Approval?

President Obama was repeatedly asked at his press conference in Russia today about whether he would still attack Syria if Congress votes down the force authorization. Obama has said a number of times that he has the constitutional authority to do so, but hasn’t answered whether or not he will take that action. On Twitter, Talk Points Memo’s Sahil Kapur said that he can’t answer that question, “because it undercuts his effort to build support.” But that only happens if Obama is determined to go ahead with the strikes without Congressional approval.

Think about it for a second. If Obama comes out and declares that he will not strike Syria if Congress doesn’t approve the resolution, what does that change? It puts more pressure on lawmakers to vote for authorization as they can no longer convince themselves that Obama will act anyways. For a Congressman who wants to vote yes, but won’t do so both for political reasons and because he believes Obama will act unilaterally, this could change his vote. On the other hand, revealing that he won’t act without Congressional approval will not make any Congressmen more likely to vote against the resolution.

The only reason I can see for the President to keep his intentions hidden is if he is willing to go ahead without authorization or has not made up his mind yet. The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan explained this well:

Here’s the issue: If Obama says whether or not he would proceed with an attack after a failed vote, he could change the way the vote is likely to play out in advance. He needs to make members feel that “yes” or “no” votes are consequential. If he says he is going to act anyway, it could give cover to lawmakers on the fence to vote “no,” since action — which polls show is unpopular — would come even without their approval. If he says he will not act without Congress, Obama is leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers and limiting his flexibility.

But what’s wrong with the President “leaving his next move entirely in the hands of lawmakers” if he intends to do so anyways? As Cillizza and Sullivan note, it limits his flexibility, but that is only if he is determined to overrule Congress anyways. If the President is not going to do so, then he can put more pressure on Congress to approve the force authorization by revealing that he will not act unilaterally. It makes their votes more consequential.

The scariest part of this is that if the President has done this calculation, then he may intend to disregard Congress. The only reason for him to keep his intentions secret is if he’s willing to act unilaterally or if he hasn’t made up his mind. Given that overruling Congress would be both unconstitutional and possibly grounds for impeachment, let’s hope it’s the latter.

Does Obama Lack the Leadership Skills in Syria?

One of the most common criticisms of President Obama is that he doesn’t have the leadership skills to persuade legislators to support his agenda. The theory goes that if Obama were friendly to Congressmen or reached across the aisle more, Republicans would suddenly drop their obstructionism and work with him. Commentators on the left and right love to ding the President for this, but it’s almost comically untrue. Presidential leadership is a myth. The bully pulpit is vastly overrated and no matter what Obama does, Republicans are going to oppose it. No number of meetings, dinners or visits to Capitol Hill will change that.

This theory has come up yet again with the Obama Administration’s inability to convince Congressmen, particularly in the House, to support a strike in Syria. The Washington Post‘s Matt Miller articulated his six qualms about Syria today. Here’s number five:

The leadership question. In recent days, several business leaders in Los Angeles who voted for Obama twice have told me, unprompted, that the Syrian episode captures everything they can’t stand about the president. He lacks basic leadership skills, they say. Too much detailed public analysis and hemming and hawing, says one. No real engagement with his counterparts, says another, and so no reservoir of good will with either foreign leaders or with exotic species like Republicans. When Obama himself seems to lack conviction in his proposed course of action, they wonder, how will he persevere when any military step brings the inevitable complications?

Matt Lewis, of the Daily Caller, echoed a similar sentiment this morning:

Some people seem surprised the votes just aren’t there for Syrian intervention. I’m not. Call it the Vietnam syndrome redux, but after a decade of war, Americans are understandably war weary. Thus, the only way way to overcome this difficult obstacle would be to have a). an ironclad case for war, and b). a president who uses personal relationships to twist arms.

In this regard, he’s 0-for-2.

Still, absent a “slam dunk” case for intervention, personally persuading Members of Congress to vote for bombing Syria (in this environment) would require some elbow grease. For years, Obama has been criticized for failing to develop relationships with Members of Congress. Until now, he has mostly (miraculously) skated on this. But one gets the sense that it has finally caught up with him.

So, assuming that President Obama isn’t intentionally tanking the rollout for the strike because he secretly doesn’t want to go to war, how much is a lack of presidential leadership to blame for the lack of support? There’s no doubt that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have done a poor job selling the war to the American people (yes, firing missiles at a country is an act of war). But, if they had explained it well, how much would public opinion be different? Likely not much. The American public adamantly is against the strike. A number of House members have reported overwhelming opposition from their constituents. This isn’t a close public opinion battle that a better White House strategy could have swayed. It’s a major uphill fight.

That doesn’t mean the President has done an acceptable job here. He hasn’t. He switched from taking unilateral action to asking for Congress’s approval at the last second . The Administration asked for an absurdly broad force authorization. Secretary Kerry fumbled questions in Congress. It’s been a mess. But once again, commentators are overstating the value of the bully pulpit. President Obama can continue to condemn the chemical weapon attack and argue that the international community must respond. But, Americans are war-weary. He can only change public opinion so much.

As for his relationships on Capitol Hill, that has been overrated too. This is a major decision and legislators are listening to their constituents on it (see Justin Amash’s twitter account for instance). If Obama can’t sway public opinion in his favor (and I don’t think he can), then twisting the arms of Congressmen is highly unlikely to work too.

The President has done a poor job leading and arguing for this Syrian strike, but even if he passionately laid out the evidence for an attack, he would’ve had trouble convincing the American people. There are rumors that the President will make a national address this week to push for the strike. For those who believe in the power of presidential leadership, this will be a test of the bully pulpit. Don’t get your hopes up of it having any major effect though.

Obama Should Not Be Embarrassed if the Syria Resolution Fails

There’s been a widespread assumption in the media that if Congress does not approve of the force authorization in Syria, it will be a major embarrassment for President Obama. The New York Times called it “one of the riskiest gambles of his presidency.” A McClatchy article on the topic was titled “Obama risks embarrassing loss in Congress.” The Financial Times published a piece titled “Barack Obama risks more than just his credibility on Syria.” It’s easy to find more examples.

But this line of thinking is not just dead wrong, it’s also damaging to our democracy.

President Obama and future presidents should not think that consulting Congress is a risky proposition. They should not think that a defeat in Congress would be a huge embarrassment to their administration. It’s vital that the executive branch consult with the legislative branch before going to war. That’s how democracy works. It’s a system of checks and balances.

And contrary to President Obama’s comments, that system of checks and balances extends to war-making authority as well. Obama is wrong when he says he has the unilateral authority to strike Syria. We’ve grown accustomed to presidents seizing that power, but the fact of the matter is that except under extreme circumstances where the national security of the United States is at risk, only Congress has the power to declare war. This isn’t an extreme circumstance. President Obama is following the Constitution by asking Congress for approval.

That’s what makes articles like the ones I listed above so dangerous. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy. A defeat in Congress is only embarrassing for the President, because the media has framed it that way. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf had an excellent post yesterday that outlined how perverse this thinking is:

If you’re someone who personalizes politics, fetishizes disagreement, and intends to treat a Congressional rejection of a strike on Syria as a “humiliation” for Obama, the Times frame makes some sense, but make no mistake: Its assessment of the Syria debate’s impact is self-fulfilling prophecy from an insular, status-obsessed elite. Obama’s approach is “a gamble” because and only because other insiders imagine that a president being denied by Congress — gasp! — is embarrassing, rather than a healthy manifestation of Madisonian checks.

The executive is more prone to war than the legislature or the people. This was foreseen.

This is even more dangerous, because it sends a message to future presidents that consulting with Congress (and abiding by the Constitution) is a major risk that can derail an entire presidency. We don’t know how the current vote will turn out, but if Congress does not pass the resolution and the media treats it as a massive disgrace to the President, it will be a grave disservice to our country. Hopefully, future administrations will follow the Constitution and consult Congress. But the past couple of Presidents have demonstrated that they don’t always think they need Congress’s approval to wage war. Will a future President ever go to Congress again if he (or she) knows that rejection will be a black mark on his (or her) presidency and derail his (or her) entire agenda?

If Congress rejects the authorization, we should treat it as a victory for democracy, not a failure of the presidency. That would signal to future presidents that asking Congress for permission to wage war is not a major gamble. Framing it otherwise only incentivizes them to find a way around the system of checks and balances.

Is that really the framework the media intends to promote? I hope not.