In order to get approval of his plan for retributive strikes against Bashar al Assad, President Obama will spend the week urgently trying to make the case for action to the public. As George W. Bush once said, "If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier." Just ask Bashar al Assad.
After 10 days of (presumably only metaphorical) arm-twisting, members of the House and Senate haven't rallied to President Obama's side on the idea. The most recent whip counts (tallies of which members of Congress support or oppose action) continue to show broad opposition to action. Or, more accurately, broad skepticism — as we noted last week, Congress largely has soft opposition ("leaning no") to an as-yet-unspecified resolution of action. In part that's because it, like the president, is waiting to see how the public reacts.
As a CNN poll out Monday morning suggests, the administration won't have much of a challenge to voters in making the case that the Assad government used chemical weapons. 82 percent of respondents thought it was certain or likely that the regime was responsible for the August 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus. The problem for the president is that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose a Congressional resolution anyway, with about 70 percent saying it's "not in our national interest" to intervene.
The administration will therefore continue to try and press the case that it has been making since the president's announcement that he would seek Congressional approval. That case, as presented by Samantha Power, ambassador to the U.N. last week: that the international community cannot tolerate any instance of the use of chemical weapons and that, absent action by a U.N. over which Russia has veto power, it was incumbent on the United States to act. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Sunday that the number of countries willing to join any action is now in the double-digits — presumably fewer than the 34 countries that he claimed last week agree with the administration's contention that Assad be held responsible.
Members of the administration, past and present, have a full slate:
- The president's weekly address over the weekend — ostensibly a message to the public, but one that rarely gains any traction — dealt with Syria.
- On Monday, the president will record interviews with six TV networks, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and PBS to air during the evening news.
- On Tuesday, he follows that up with a 9 p.m. Eastern speech from the White House.
- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who still enjoys broadly positive public support, will briefly mention Syria during remarks Monday at the White House. She will follow those remarks up with comments on Tuesday at an event in Philadelphia.
- Kerry spoke with reporters about Syria during a tour of European capitals.
- National Security Adviser Susan Rice will make the administration's case during a speech at the New America Foundation.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is making its own pitch. Assad sat down for an interview with CBS News' Charlie Rose in which he argued against any action, stoking precisely the points of skepticism to which Congress and the public are susceptible. Prompting this response from ABC News' Dana Hughes.
It's like #Assad read opinion polls b/f the intvu & decided to confirm every single fear skeptical Americans & the int'l community have.— Dana Hughes (@dana_hughes) September 9, 2013
Assad had a response to that built-in to the interview.
Bashar al-Assad: “We’re not like America. We’re not a social media administration.” #Syria— Anup Kaphle (@AnupKaphle) September 9, 2013
Which is one way to look at it. After the president's weekly address on Saturday, his social media team followed up with exactly that sort of social media appeal.
The point, however, isn't really getting shares and retweets. It's to build public support, which is what democracies do. The president delayed the broadly non-democratic idea of unilateral strikes without any Congressional input. He's had little luck in getting Congress to approve the idea subsequently, demanding that he appeal to the public directly.
It would certainly be easier to run a dictatorship. Of course, as Assad knows, that also has its downsides, even notwithstanding mass murder.