President Obama is betting his presidency on the hope of cooperation from an institution that he disdains and has proved incapable of taming. His roll-the-dice gamble for a congressional go-ahead in Syria may well succeed. Still, the risk is enormous for Obama’s fraying credibility, and the implications are significant, not only for the power of this president but for his successors.
Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval was sudden, verging on erratic. He was certainly correct when he said Saturday that “our democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together.”
But that raises an uncomfortable question: Why didn’t the president plan to seek authorization from the start? How can this request to Congress be reconciled with Obama’s willingness to act unilaterally in Libya — indeed, to argue that, months after the operation began, he did not need congressional authorization because the bombing campaign did not amount to the kind of “hostilities” contemplated by the War Powers Act?
In shifting course, the White House — or, more precisely, the president, since much of his staff was understandably skittish about seeking congressional support — was influenced by the British Parliament’s rebuff of Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for approval to intervene in Syria. Cameron’s failure put the White House in a difficult position, making it look as if democracy was fine for the United Kingdom but too dicey for the United States to handle. Meanwhile, the blowback over Syria from Congress and the public was fiercer than the White House had anticipated.
Obama couched his decision in high-minded terms, as “president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy” and a believer in government by the people. But numerous members of Congress, including some of his own party, sniffed a less lofty motive — seeking political cover for an unpopular move.