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Politics & Government

Obama's Nod To Congress Could Be Smart Politics


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Rachel Martin is away. Yesterday afternoon President Obama spoke from the rose garden to announce how he's decided to handle the question of air strikes in Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. For the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning I spoke with all four congressional leaders and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.

GOODWYN: National political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now. Welcome, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Wade.

GOODWYN: This was a surprising turn of events, wasn't it? We went from expecting military action any minute to hold your horses, let's talk to Congress first. What happened?

LIASSON: What happened was the president changed his mind. He saw what happened in Great Britain, he knew he wasn't getting the support of the United Nations Security Council and although the White House insists they don't need congressional approval to act - they're not legally required to get it - he felt that going to Congress would put any military action on a much stronger footing.

It would also be consistent with the position that he's taken all along in favor of presidents going to Congress first. And especially with a public that's deeply ambivalent about military action, he decided that a full debate with the people's representatives was the best way to go.

GOODWYN: There's a perception that this is a shrewd political move. Congress has been carping for a week that the president ought to go through them and so now he will. It seems to have satisfied many on both sides of the aisle, but is this a case of be careful what you wish for because now Congress has to act?

LIASSON: Well, there is a little bit of the White House calling their bluff, daring them to let Syria get away with murdering women and children with poison gas and White House officials have complained that Congress was calling on him to consult with them and then they were getting ready to criticize him for any decision he ultimately made. However, that is not the reason he's going to Congress. In the end, the responsibility is the president's. The buck still stops with him.

GOODWYN: Will the president get support from Congress?

LIASSON: Well, if the vote was held right now the answer would be no, and that's what makes this such a hugely risky move for the president because a failure would weaken him immensely. Lots of members of Congress reacted favorably to the fact that he's going to come to them for a vote, but there are many Republicans, especially in the House, who won't approve of anything the president wants to do and there are a lot of Democrats who are against military action.

And even in the Senate where support for the president's position is considered stronger, there are lawmakers like Lindsey Graham and John McCain who say they will vote no because the tailored, limited shot-across-the-bow type of military action the president is describing will not be effective. The public is deeply ambivalent about military action. For many members it's a lot tougher to vote yes than no on this, so the president is going to have to work very hard for the next couple of weeks.

He'll enlist allies like Israel to help sway members and he'll be making the point that Secretary Kerry made on all five Sunday talk shows this morning that the administration has hard evidence that Syria did use sarin gas.

GOODWYN: What are the long-term political risks if the president were to go forward with a cruise missile attack over the objections of Congress?

LIASSON: Well, he'd be without the support of the U.N., Great Britain, and his own Congress. What a way to go to war. Completely isolated. We don't know what he'd do if he loses the vote on Congress because the White House hasn't said, but given everything the president has said about the dangers to our national security if we send a message that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, it would be shocking if he lost the vote in Congress and then said OK, I'll do nothing.

But the fact is that there are huge risks no matter what path the president takes. There are risks in the kind of limited military action that he says he wants to take. The risk is that it won't be effective, that it will only embolden Bashar al-Assad, or it will suck the U.S. into the Syrian civil war, just the outcome the president has been trying so hard to avoid.

GOODWYN: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Wade. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.