September 17, 2013

There’s a lot to criticize about President Obama’s handling of Syria. He failed to make a strong case for military action and probably should never have entertained bombing without Congress’ support. That said, much Beltway elite criticism, which has focused largely on process and theatrics, is deeply misguided and disconnected from how Americans view the situation. A new Post/ABC News poll illustrates this clearly.

The poll finds an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans support the proposed deal for international control over Syria’s chemical weapons Obama has embraced. There’s continued public opposition to strikes, with only 30 percent in support. The public gives Obama’s overall handling of the situation low marks.

At the same time, the poll finds a leading elite criticism of Obama’s handling of the crisis — that his changing of mind along with shifting circumstances showed a vacillation that risks projecting wavering intent — isn’t shared by the public. Sixty percent say he “sticks with his principles,” roughly unchanged since January 2012. A plurality thinks the initial threat of missile strikes helped the situation by pressuring Syria to give up its chemical weapons — meaning Americans accept Obama’s argument about the impact of the threat (even if they oppose action) and don’t see his change of course as somehow diminishing it. A plurality also says Obama made a good case in his speech the other night — despite widespread pundit derision.

It’s true Obama’s “commander in chief” qualities have slipped. But even here they remain in solid majority territory. Fifty two percent say he’s a “good commander in chief of the military,” which is down a few points but only within the margin of error. Fifty four percent say he’s a strong leader — down from 61 percent in January, but the drop could reflect any number of things (such as the economy), and indeed, it’s now higher than it was at other points in Obama’s presidency. These variations just don’t mean much in the real world. They certainly don’t confirm elite pundit conclusions.

Indeed, yesterday’s Pew poll finds overwhelming support for the diplomatic deal, and also finds a plurality sees Obama’s change of course as “leadership and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances,” rather than “weakness.”

How do you square all this with public disapproval of his handling of the mess? Simple: Obama proposed strikes, and the public opposes them. As the Fix notes, Obama still has not made the “sale” on Syria. That is unquestionably true. But the way to look at that failure is not as one of process, but one of policy. Strikes were a bad idea. The public continues to say so. The opportunity of diplomacy presented itself. Obama took that opportunity. The public supports that decision. Does anyone really imagine Americans care whether it was a verbal flub by John Kerry — or a changing of mind in response to new circumstances — that put us on the road to the outcome they want?

There is just no evidence Americans see this through the prism favored by elite pundits — that adapting to shifting circumstances is not “resolute” or :decisive,” and is therefore inherently a bad thing that has “weakened” the presidency and the country. In the Post poll, only 32 percent say it weakened the country (which is higher than say we’ve benefited but is still a distinct minority). Indeed, a plurality of 46 percent say Obama’s handling of the situation “has not made much difference to U.S. leadership.”

These numbers will mostly go ignored today. But their meaning is plain. What we really need is a reevaluation of all the unstated assumptions that shape elite discourse about these matters. What we don’t need is any more paint-by-numbers punditry.

* CONSERVATIVE GROUPS GAIN POWER IN SHUTDOWN PUSH: Robert Costa has a must read on how the continuing pressure from conservative groups for a confrontation to defund Obamacare is looking more and more likely to result in a government shutdown, infuriating GOP leaders. This is very well put:

These organizations, ensconced in Northern Virginia office parks and elsewhere, aren’t worried about the establishment’s ire. In fact, they welcome it. Business has boomed since the push to defund Obamacare caught on. Conservative activists are lighting up social media, donations are pouring in, and e-mail lists are growing.

That’s what this is about. The scam is working, successfully persuading untold numbers of GOP base voters Obamacare’s demise is at hand. There’s no sign GOP leaders know what to do about it or can get the votes to keep the government open.

Meanwhile, Steve Benen has a good take on how outsized influence is being wielded over the process by “the extremist base that writes checks in response to far-right fundraising appeals, shows up at Tea Party rallies, never changes the channel from Fox News, and shows up to participate in GOP primaries.”

* DEMS LAUNCH OFFENSIVE AGAINST GOP SHUTDOWN PUSH: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will announce today:

The DCCC is launching a paid grassroots campaign to urge 27 vulnerable House Republicans not to shut down the government over their Obamacare fight. The DCCC’s automated phone calls connect Americans to their Member of Congress so that constituents can directly ask their representatives to “stop the nonsense and focus on common sense solutions that protect our health care and grow our economy.”

Of course, as I noted here yesterday, polling shows the desire for lawmakers to try to make Obamacare fail is running very strong among GOP primary voters, which appear to matter far more to many GOP lawmakers than anything else.

* PUSH FOR YELLEN GAINS STEAM: The New York Times gets inside the process and reports that the campaign for Janet Yellen as Fed chair is gaining momentum in the wake of Larry Summers’ defeat. This is key:

[T]he choice of Ms. Yellen — which months ago might have been celebrated as historic — is likely to be seen as Mr. Obama’s reluctant capitulation to his party’s left wing. That prospect, and Mr. Obama’s distaste for being pressured into some action, could prompt him to consider other candidates, several former administration officials said.

It’s well known the White House recoils at being pushed into decisions, but it would be real folly if this were to turn out to be a factor.

* GET READY FOR ANOTHER ROUND OF AUSTERITY WARS: The Center for American Progress has released a new study documenting the degree to which the conversation has shifted to the right over what constitutes acceptable levels of austerity. The report notes the level of spending being accepted by Senate Dems is now roughly in line with previous Republican spending cut demands — even as House Republicans are preparing to demand another round of cuts.

All of this is a reminder that Washington remains trapped in a conversation over how much more austerity to impose, even as the recovery struggles.

* TIME TO INCREASE PRESSURE ON GOP OVER IMMIGRATION? Immigration advocacy groups are growing impatient with House GOP foot-dragging over immigration reform, and want Dems to exert more political pressure on Republicans to act. My sense of the situation is that the bipartisan House “gang of seven” plan — a potential vehicle for comprehensive reform — may get rolled out in October after the government shutdown fight is resolved. Barring that you may see votes on piecemeal measures.

Or maybe House Republicans will do nothing. If immigration reform dies, it will only be because House GOP leaders decided to kill it.

* AN OBAMACARE MILESTONE: Jonathan Cohn has a nice piece detailing the meaning of Pennsylvania’s decision to try to opt into the Medicaid expansion, meaning more than half of states are now doing so. As Cohn notes, such expansions could ultimately benefit Obamacare politically, because “many people opposed to (or at least ambivalent about) the law simply don’t know much about it. Many also have no health insurance, which means they stand to benefit most dramatically and immediately.”

Meanwhile, “With most of the law’s coverage provisions not yet in place, the law’s critics are able to dominate the political conversation.” That could very well change.

* AND OBAMA AND “STYLE POINTS”: The latest Obama quote to attract criticism is his claim that he’s “less concerned about style points” than about “getting the policy right.” Surely process matters to some degree, but policy matters more. If folks want to make the case that getting the “style points” wrong has repercussions for the country, that’s fine, but that shouldn’t be divorced from the question of whether Obama did, indeed, get the policy right. By the way, he didn’t get it right initially, in my view. But folks should say whether they support or oppose the decision to pursue diplomacy.

What else?

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