September 6, 2013

Speaking to reporters today at the G-20, President Obama refused to answer questions about whether he would order an attack on Syria if Congress voted against authorizing strikes. That seems a bit at odds with White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken’s claim that it’s “neither his desire, nor his intention” to act without Congressional approval.

All of this is already setting in motion an argument over how it will be perceived if Congress says No to strikes — and if Obama heeds Congress’ vote and calls off the attack. Commentators will widely argue that this shows the president is a badly weakened lame duck who can’t bend Congress to his will, putting his second term agenda in further doubt.

It’s worth distinguishing between how Congress will view such an outcome and how the public might view it.

To be sure, if Congress says No — and if Obama listens — many lawmakers will conclude that the President is weakened, and that may make them even less inclined to support his remaining agenda. It’s hard to see how Republicans could show any more intransigence towards Obama than they already have. But one supposes they might be even less willing than before to deal with Obama on funding the government and the debt ceiling. What about Dems? Perhaps some would be less willing to support the President.

But will voters perceive things in these terms?

If Congress says No, and Obama announces that he will abide by the vote — arguing that the people have spoken, that democracy and the rule of law will prevail, and that our country will be stronger for it — then it’s very possible that the Dem base will rally behind him. Remember, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and other liberal groups strongly supported Obama’s decision to go to Congress, even though they oppose his proposal to attack Syria. If Obama heeds Congress, the liberal base — and liberal lawmakers — would likely have Obama’s back. Independents, who have tilted strongly against an attack, might be supportive, too.

And so, several questions for the political science egghead types and anyone else who cares to answer. Do voters really perceive situations like these in the same terms pundits and Congressional lawmakers do, i.e., in terms of what they tell us about presidential strength or weakness? Do voters really expect presidents to bend Congress to their will, or do they see Congress as its own animal and don’t hold presidents accountable for its behavior? And what would it mean if the public agrees with the Congressional vote against intervention and supports an Obama decision to obey it — and doesn’t see the outcome in strength-versus-weakness or winner-versus-loser terms — even as Members of Congress do see it as such?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.