Can Presidents Play It Too Safe?

Obama has sought to rally the public to support his plans on Syria — but he hasn't given it much reason to follow him.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013.  (REUTERS)

In the 66 years since Harry Truman gave the first televised address from the White House, President Obama's Tuesday night speech may have been the oddest. Truman asked the country to avoid meat on Mondays and "save a slice of bread each day" to help those starving in Europe. That set the pattern for the 11 presidents to follow. They used the platform to either explain actions already taken, react to a disaster, or enlist the public in a fight for something specific.

But not Obama. Not this time. This time, the president had no action to report, no cause for the public to rally behind. Instead, he gave an assessment of an ongoing diplomatic process, talking about actions he hadn't yet taken and decisions he hadn't yet made. He passionately — and effectively — explained why the United States must stand against the use of chemical weapons. But then he struck a defensive and ambivalent tone about a possible military response.

The result is a White House that remains on the wrong side of public opinion and decidedly less in control of its own fate than it was before the president's surprise decision to delay any military strike against Syria until Congress gives its approval. "It was a very peculiar moment," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic State Departments from 1978 to 2003. Now a vice president at the Wilson International Center for Scholars, he complained to National Journal that the address — "like everything about this crisis" — was "overhyped without a clear-cut conclusion," as the president contemplates what Miller derides as "the most widely telegraphed and advertised military move in history."

Perhaps the most enduring message of the speech was that this president does not like any of his options. "He is an ambivalent warrior," Miller said. "He is torn between a war he doesn't want — he doesn't even like his own military option — and a diplomatic solution that he knows faces tremendously long odds." The result was what Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, called "a hybrid speech with no call to action other than to support hitting the pause button."

At the heart of the dilemma is the president's attempt to balance the decisive action he believes needs to be taken against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his desire to have public and congressional support. There is nothing new about that impulse. No president relishes bucking a strong popular tide. President Roosevelt did all he could to support Great Britain in the early days of World War II. But he was wary of going against what he believed was a robust strain of isolationism in the U.S. Lord Lothian, the British ambassador to the United States at the time, reported to London that decisions in Washington were determined, "to an extent unknown under the parliamentary system, [by] public opinion as revealed in the press, the Gallup polls, the tornado of telegrams addressed to Congress."

But FDR was willing to push measures, including Lend-Lease and the military draft, even though they were unpopular. On the military front, Obama has yet to demonstrate that on Syria. By worrying about the polls, he may have boxed himself in. "Setting foreign policy by poll is among the most dangerous traps," said David Rothkopf, a longtime analyst and the editor-at-large of Foreign Policy magazine. Voters, he said, are averse to risks and reluctant to intervene in foreign wars.

In this week's speech, Rothkopf saw too much concern for public opinion. "He believes it is important that the United States not let stand the use of chemical weapons by Assad," Rothkopf said. "But I think he has been unnerved by the fact that the American people are so violently against it, and he has not been able to persuade them to the contrary."

Few understand the potency of public opinion better than those who worked for Bush. He had strong public support in the polls when he launched the war in Afghanistan in 2001. The public was less enthusiastic about the war in Iraq in 2003, until missiles were launched and support soared to almost 80 percent. But it didn't take long for both conflicts to lose that support and popularity. "It certainly is more helpful if the public is behind you," Fleischer said in somewhat of an understatement. "But if a president is convinced he is right and has a moral imperative, it is likely that much of the public will follow once military action is taken.... Conviction brings on followers. The nation rallies. If a president is willing to use force only if and when the nation agrees, he may be squandering a significant part of his authority."

History has examples of both paths. FDR made sure the nation was prepared for World War II despite the polls. Truman had public backing for entering the Korean War. President Johnson had strong support in the polls at the beginning of the Vietnam War. President Clinton ignored the polls when he involved the American military in Kosovo and threatened to send paratroopers to Haiti. In all cases, the polls shifted based on emerging threats and the outcome of the wars. Initial support or opposition had no permanence. Obama understood that in 2011, when he ignored the polls and involved the United States in Libya.

Now, on Syria, he again confronts the same question that faced all his predecessors: Is he willing to do what he believes is in the national interest regardless of domestic public opinion? Tuesday's speech did not provide that answer.