President Obama was not about to risk being stuck on a highway in Louisville when it came time to launch what the White House understands is the most high-stakes foreign policy showdown with Congress of his presidency. Though he was supposed to have departed for Kentucky two hours earlier, he scrapped his schedule shortly after signing off on the deal in a 10 a.m. briefing. Then, he made sure he had the powerful backdrop of the Rose Garden to make his initial pitch for the historic deal being negotiated to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program.
This would be one sales push the president would open the right way, throwing the full force of his office behind him.
It was the first indication that this is a battle in which the White House is determined to avoid past mistakes—to stay off the defensive, to marshal his facts early, to keep Congress informed, and to get the American public on his side.
These may seem obvious. But this is a president known more for his oratorical eloquence than his powers of persuasion, who still struggles to find a way to sell his proudest domestic accomplishment—health care reform—five years after its passage, to a still-doubting country.
Selling his programs does not come easily to him, as he too often projects exasperation that the critics can't grasp what seems so clear to him.
Now, with the announcement of the Iran framework in Switzerland and continuing negotiations on the final deal, he faces his toughest sales job yet. Arrayed against him is a solid Republican opposition, a large bloc of skeptical Democrats, and a powerful condemning chorus led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His campaign is complicated by the fact that the negotiations continue. The hoariest diplomatic cliché is that the devil is in the details. But that never has been truer than in these negotiations because the president will need to show Congress the details to back up the broad claims he made in the Rose Garden.
And the White House realizes that the opposition will not wait to see those final details of the deal to be worked out by June 30. GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, waited only minutes after the president finished speaking to put out a statement demanding a congressional vote on any agreement. He expressed confidence of a "strong vote" for his Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act when he brings it up in committee on April 14.
Senior officials involved in the negotiations assured reporters Thursday afternoon that they will be aggressive in keeping Corker and other Republicans in the loop, noting that they had been briefing "many dozens" of members of Congress in recent days as the Swiss negotiations went on around the clock.
While his aides are saying all the right things about consulting with Congress, the president warned his critics on Capitol Hill that "the issues at stake here are bigger than politics." And he laid out the arguments he will use against them. Basically, he will cast the alternative as significantly worse both for the world and for American interests.
"If Congress kills this deal not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative," he said, "then it's the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy, international unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen."
Bluntly, he said there are only three options available: One is this deal and the other two lead to "another war in the Middle East." The deal—which he described as "robust and verifiable"—would keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The second option "is we can bomb Iran's nuclear facilities." And the third would be to pull out of the talks and "hope for the best." But, he said, that would quickly lead to a decision on military action "because we'd have no idea what was going on inside of Iran."
Expect to hear the president make that case repeatedly in the coming days and weeks, capped with the question he asked Thursday: "Do you really think that this verifiable deal ... is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?"
On the other side, House Speaker John Boehner has already dismissed the president's case as "naïve" and on Thursday promised more "tough questions" for him, setting the stage for an epic foreign policy showdown with high stakes usually seen only on votes to authorize the use of force or declare war.
To find anything comparable, you have to go back to 1975, when Congress defeated President Gerald Ford's request for aid to South Vietnam to avert the defeat that came less than two months later. Before that, there was President Woodrow Wilson's futile yearlong campaign to sell the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. Wilson crisscrossed the country in a campaign that cost him his health before losing 49-35 in the Senate in 1920. Neither Wilson nor his presidency ever recovered.
Today, Obama seems to understand that his presidency, his stewardship of foreign policy, and his legacy are at stake. The question is whether he has learned from past stumbles and can effectively sell this deal to Congress and the American public.