A presidency is not on the line

Updated
A presidency is not on the line
A presidency is not on the line
Associated Press

The Hill published an item this morning that helps capture much of the Beltway thinking about Congress’ upcoming votes on military intervention in Syria. “The fate of President Obama’s second term hangs on his Tuesday speech to the nation about Syria,” the piece argues. “If Congress votes against a military attack on President Bashar Assad’s regime, Obama’s credibility may be shot, perhaps for the rest of his tenure.”

This is certainly the conventional wisdom, eagerly touted by Republicans. If Congress rejects the White House’s call for action, Obama’s defeat will be so catastrophic, he might as well resign.

Obviously, the House and Senate votes are very important; it’d be foolish to argue otherwise. The world is watching, and if the president’s call for authorization is rejected by Congress, it will carry significant consequences – for Syria, for U.S. foreign policy, and for the administration.

But let’s not go too overboard.

Yes, Obama is prepared to use force in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and lawmakers seem prepared to turn down the president’s request. But let’s not lose sight of the larger dynamic here: Obama asks Congress for a lot of things, and lawmakers routinely say no. Kevin Drum’s take rings true:

[W]hy would rejecting Obama’s request “incapacitate the president for three long years”? I’m not asking this in the usual rhetorical way, where I pretend not to know even though I really do. I’m really asking. Presidents suffer defeats all the time. Obama lost on cap-and-trade. He’s lost on plenty of judicial and executive branch nominations. He couldn’t get agreement for a grand bargain. He lost on gun control. What’s more, Republicans have been opposing him on virtually everything from the day he took office. In what concrete way would a defeat on Syria change this dynamic in even the slightest way?

Legislation that Congress was unlikely to pass will face equally long odds regardless of the outcome of the Syria debate. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine any lawmakers looking at a bill that might yet pass and saying, “Well, I was prepared to vote for this, but since the authorization to use force in Syria didn’t work out, forget it.”

Obama couldn’t get Congress to focus on job creation. Or gun violence. Or really much of anything at all. A loss on a Syria resolution may have some qualitative differences – it’s foreign policy, not domestic – but Clinton lost House votes on Bosnia and Kosovo, and his presidency didn’t magically collapse on the spot.

If Obama comes up short on Syria, it’d really just be a reminder that congressional Republicans will simply reject everything the president wants out of hand, even when they agree with him – which is something we already knew.

Brian Beutler is thinking along the same lines.

When President Obama decided to seek authorization to bomb Syria, he didn’t just throw the fate of his plans into the hands of 535 unpredictable members of Congress. He also made himself vulnerable to overblown suggestions that his entire second term is on the line.

Political reporters have a weakness for narratives, and the narrative of a weakened president is irresistible. Moreover, members of Congress will feed that narrative. Even Democrats. If you’re Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, a great way to pad your vote count is to plead to your caucus that if the resolution fails, Obama will become a lame duck a year earlier than he ought to.

This pitch is both morally and factually incorrect.

Lawmakers who were prepared to vote for immigration reform won’t change their minds over Syria. The same is true of lawmakers who want to hold the debt ceiling hostage, change the sequestration policy, or really do much anything. The vote on Syria is important, but it will not dictate the fate of Obama’s presidency.

Just to be clear, the outcome of this foreign policy fight matters. In the short term, it will carry life-and-death consequences in Syria, and in the medium term, it will likely affect the nation’s diplomatic and national security efforts (though I’ve long argued that Republican radicalism has put the U.S. in a post-treaty phase anyway).

But the notion that Congress can effectively end Obama’s presidency with one vote on a resolution on force in Syria appears to be an overstatement. Some Republicans may want to use it as an excuse to reject an agenda they disapprove of anyway, and some in the media may see a pretense to write the president’s political obituary, but both are a little over the top.

Foreign Policy, Barack Obama and Syria

A presidency is not on the line

Updated