Wonkbook: Seven hard truths for the White House on Syria

September 9, 2013

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(Photo by Dilkoff Ditmar/ Getty Images)
(Photo by Dilkoff Ditmar/ Getty Images)

1) Here's the thing to remember as President Obama begins his final, and quite possibly doomed, push for congressional authorization to strike Syria: These strikes could've been over a week ago.

As Ed Luce writes, the original plan was for "the US was to launch punitive strikes on Syria within days – lasting 48 hours and with 43 targets already identified, not including the presidential palace. It would have likely been over by last Monday." But that plan was jettisoned after the British parliament voted against backing us up and President Obama decided, in an 11th-hour turnaround, to ask Congress for authorization.

2) Congress does not see this as an example of respecting Congress. They see this as an example of the White House trying to share the blame. 

There's much to be said for establishing -- or reestablishing -- the precedent that the president should go to Congress before launching these kinds of interventions. But the way the White House chose to go to Congress didn't signal respect for the institution. It signaled fear over the political consequences of bearing solely responsible for whatever might go wrong in Syria (and note that the White House still won't say whether they'll go to war absent congressional approval). The simple fact is that Congress is less supportive of this authorization than they would've been of Obama's unilateral strikes.

3) The public is overwhelmingly opposed to the strikes. The latest CNN/ORC poll shows that 80 percent of Americans believe Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his citizens. But even so, more than 70 percent of Americans say they oppose air strikes without congressional authorization and 55 percent say they oppose air strikes even with congressional authorization.

This, in a nutshell, is the White House's problem: The American public believes the intelligence. They just don't care. They don't believe Syria poses a threat to the United States. They don't believe the U.S.'s national interests are served by getting involved in Syria.

4) The intense minority agrees with the majority. The White House notes that members of Congress often go against the constituents' wishes. Otherwise universal background checks would be the law of the land. That might be true, but those violations of public opinion tend to come on issues where the intense minority happens to disagree with the majority. But every member of Congress says that the constituents they're hearing from overwhelmingly oppose the strikes. The intense minority agrees with the majority.

5) The White House is turning to very bad arguments on Capitol Hill. In Playbook today, Mike Allen reports on the "the private argument for supporting the Syria resolution … To Republicans: Do it for Israel! … To Democrats: Do it for Obama!" This isn't a mission designed to aid Israel or Obama. It's never a good idea to back a war for reasons far distant from the war's actual objectives.

6) The problem for Obama's big push is that he doesn't have an argument that's working. President Obama will give six televised interviews today and make a primetime speech Tuesday night. But the problem for the White House isn't that their arguments haven't been heard. It's that they're not working. Both members of the public and members of Congress believe the intelligence. They just remain skeptical that there's any upside to a U.S. attack.

7) Is it really so bad if the vote fails? As always in Washington, this vote is being sold as a meta-vote on whether President Obama is a "lame duck" and still possesses "credibility." As always, those arguments are ridiculous -- a successful vote in Syria won't unlock a deal over the debt ceiling, and a failed vote on Syria won't weaken the president's hand in those negotiations. What would have long-term consequence for Obama's presidency and American power isn't the vote on Syria going badly but an actual intervention in Syria going badly. A "no" vote forestalls that possibility.

The reality is that Obama spent years holding out against advisors who wanted to intervene in Syria. In recent weeks Assad's violation of his "red line" became too flagrant to ignore. But perhaps it's not such a bad thing for him to have sought authorization to strike and simply been rebuffed. He tried to uphold his "red line." He was, in a truly democratic moment, constrained by the American people and their elected representatives. And then it's over. James Fallows writes that, "Obama himself should hope that the Congress turns him down. A No vote would offer a legitimate if temporarily 'humiliating' way out of what is looking more and more like an inexplicable strategic mistake."

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 6. That's the number of TV interviews Obama will film tomorrow. When are they airing? Take another look at the Number of the Day.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: Monthly change in payroll employment. (Can't you just see the surge in growth that's leading the Fed to taper? Oh, wait.)

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) Syria, Syria, and more Syria; 2) Lael Brainard, Fed governor; 3) 'Land of 10,000 Lakes' becomes land of cheapest Obamacare; 4) but wait, there's more spying; and 5) all renewables?

1) Top story: Obama goes all-in on Syria

Obama launches final push to win congressional support for a strike on Syria. "President Obama launches an intensive public and private lobbying push this week to win congressional support for a limited missile strike against Syria, but even some of the strongest supporters on Capitol Hill for military action are pessimistic that the White House will succeed. Millions of Americans will see Obama make his case during network television interviews Monday and a prime-time address from the White House on Tuesday in which the president, according to an administration official, will argue that failing to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons would embolden his regime and allies such as Hezbollah and Iran. Behind the scenes, Vice President Biden was scheduled to have dinner Sunday night with Republican senators, while other senior officials were set Monday to offer closed-door briefings to the full House — the continuation of what White House officials described as a full-throttle effort to win over skeptical lawmakers in both parties." Peter Wallsten in The Washington Post.

Primary sources: President Obama's weekly address, on SyriaWhite House. Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on Syria at the Center for American ProgressUnited States Mission to the United Nations.

Syria resolution could stall Congress’s work on divisive domestic issues. "President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval of military strikes against Syria threatens to make an already contentious fall agenda on Capitol Hill even more unstable, heightening the chance of political gridlock. Congressional leaders, who will return Monday after a five-week break, had planned to use September to position their caucuses for a showdown over government funding levels and a bid to increase the federal debt limit, the third clash over the debt since 2011. The two sides are also jockeying over a proposed immigration overhaul and a continuing struggle over the farm bill, which was a victim of a conservative revolt over food stamps." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

@markknoller: WH lists only 6 GOP Senators at VP Biden's dinner on Syria: Graham, Collins, Chambliss, Corker, Ayotte and Fischer. They had Italian food.

Meanwhile: Assad denies gas attack. "Mr. Assad, for his part, said in an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS News that his government was not behind a chemical attack that killed hundreds of civilians and injured many more. In the interview, to be broadcast on Monday, Mr. Assad also said that Syria might retaliate if attacked." Michael S. Schmidt in The New York Times.

@JohnJHarwood: If Senate approves Syria resolution & House whip count looks bad, no one should be surprised if House vote gets scrapped & then US strikes

U.S. official says CIA has authenticated at least 13 videos showing victims of said Syrian gas attack. "The graphic videos, obtained by The Washington Post, have been made public previously on YouTube and other Internet sites...At the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the images were shown to senators on Thursday during a classified briefing that was part of congressional deliberations over whether to authorize President Obama to pursue limited military strikes against Syrian government targets." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Interviews: Sen. James Risch: ‘This is probably the first war in history where the attacking party has set out to not destroy the other side.' And Rep. Alan Grayson: ‘They have no smoking gun that the attack was ordered by Assad.’ Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Saudis say they'll support a Syria strike. "In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told him that Saudi Arabia would support an American-led strike. Qatar also said it would back foreign intervention, though it did not explicitly endorse airstrikes. Mr. Kerry said he was hopeful that additional countries would indicate support for a strong response in coming days." Mark Landler, Michael R. Gordon and Michael S. Schmidt in The New York Times.

Obama to visit Senate Democrats tomorrow. "Obama will meet with Senate Democrats as he tries to overcome skepticism — or outright opposition — from members of his own party as the Senate prepares to hold critical votes on the Syria use-of-force resolution. Right now, there are serious concerns among top Senate Democrats about whether they can pass the Syria resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is likely to win a cloture vote on Wednesday, but it is unclear if the Senate will approve the resolution on a final vote after that." John Bresnahan in Politico.

Denis McDonough fights for a Syria strike. "In advance of President Barack Obama’s prime-time TV address on Tuesday, McDonough appeared on five major Sunday morning talk shows. His message: The United States needs to act against Syrian President Bashar Assad to enforce the international prohibition against chemical weapons and to ensure that American allies in the region remain safe." Byron Tau and Alex Isenstadt in Politico.

@markknoller: Tomorrow, Pres Obama tapes six network interviews to make his case for limited military action against Syria. All embargoed till 6PM.

Republicans seek to tie military funding cuts to Syria intervention debate. "“The president in the last couple years has done the surge in Afghanistan while cutting the military budget, flew missions over Libya while cutting the military budget, changed to a Pacific strategy while cutting the military budget and now this,” House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re asking them to do more with less.”" Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

How Syria is affecting the oil market. "[T]he question is whether conflict would be neatly contained within Syria. The situation in Egypt, for example, remains quite unstable, and it would not take much to set it off again...Libya may already be tipping. The country was producing 1.9% of the world's total last May, but worker strikes and armed occupation of energy infrastructure may have brought the country's recent production down...To put these numbers in perspective, the table below summarizes the major geopolitical disruptions in oil-producing countries over the last 40 years. The Libyan disruptions two years ago took about 2% of world production offline, and were associated with a 20% increase in crude oil prices." James D. Hamilton on the Econbrowser blog.

FRIEDMAN: Next six months are critical for Syria. (Just kidding.) "I keep reading about how Iraq was the bad war and Libya was the good war and Afghanistan was the necessary war and Bosnia was the moral war and Syria is now another necessary war. Guess what! They are all the same war. They are all the story of what happens when multisectarian societies, most of them Muslim or Arab, are held together for decades by dictators ruling vertically, from the top down, with iron fists and then have their dictators toppled, either by internal or external forces. And they are all the story of how the people in these countries respond to the fact that with the dictator gone they can only be governed horizontally — by the constituent communities themselves writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above." Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times.

FALLOWS: Why the case for war in Syria is weak. "From what I can tell, approximately 100% of the pro-strike arguments have been devoted to proving what no one contests. Namely, that hideous events are underway in Syria, that someone (and most likely Assad) has criminally and horrifically gassed civilians, and that something should be done to reduce the ongoing carnage and punish the war crimes. And approximately 0% of the argument has addressed the main anti-strike concern: whether U.S. military action -- minus broad support, any formal international approval, or any clear definition of goal, strategy, or success -- is an effective response." James Fallows in The Atlantic.

HADLEY: To stop Iran, stop Assad. "Every American committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon should urge Congress to grant President Obama authority to use military force against the Assad regime in Syria...If the United States does not take military action, how credible will be the U.S. threat to use military force if the Iranian regime continues to pursue nuclear weapons? If that threat is not credible, then only months from now our nation could face the prospect of accepting a ­nuclear-armed Iran or having to resort to military force to prevent it." Stephen J. Hadley in The Washington Post.

HUNT: Syria may derail the Obama agenda. "If President Obama wins on Syria, most Republicans who supported him will want to take their distance on other issues; the party’s base is dominated by Obama haters. Getting the reluctant backing of some liberal Democrats for military action might add to the tension on the fiscal issues and the Fed pick...Democrats are worried that after using all his chits to get barely enough votes for the strike resolution, Obama -- whose negotiating skills are suspect to many on Capitol Hill -- might then be too eager to cut a fiscal deal." Albert R. Hunt in Bloomberg.

JONES: In defining Syria mission, bombs speak louder than words. "That means you’ll need to wait until the Tomahawks start hitting their targets to really figure out what’s going on...If the administration wants merely to damage Bashar Assad’s ability to conduct chemical attacks again — or to send a message to governments across the globe that might consider using weapons of mass destruction — then the target set is fairly narrow...Second, if the administration wants to weaken the Syrian military and tip the balance in favor of the rebels, the United States would target Syria’s air and ground forces...Third, if the United States wants to leave open the possibility of an escalating air campaign in the future, as the U.S. orchestrated in Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011, it would have to target Syria’s integrated air defense system." Seth G. Jones in Politico.

DOUTHAT: Gambling with the presidency. "When the House and Senate vote on whether to authorize strikes on Bashar al-Assad, they’ll be choosing between two potentially disastrous paths: either endorse a quasi-war that many constituents oppose and that this White House seems incapable of justifying on the merits, or vote to basically finish off the current American president as a credible actor on the world stage." Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

TANENHAUS: The hands-tied presidency. "As the debate on the Syria intervention began in Congress last week, some wondered why President Obama, who has been frustrated repeatedly by Republican legislators, would risk being thwarted yet again and possibly jeopardize the ability of future presidents to pursue ambitious foreign policy objectives...Obama might also have been acknowledging something else: that he holds office at a time when the presidency itself has ceded much of its power and authority to Congress." Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times.

Music recommendations interlude: America, "Sister Golden Hair," 1975.

Top opinion

KONCZAL: Keynes would be gloomy. "Keynes distinguishes between two camps of economists. The first were those who thought the economy must eventually return to full employment on its own following a recession...The “other side of the gulf,” where Keynes placed himself, “rejected the idea that the existing economic system is, in any significant sense, self-adjusting." Mike Konczal in The Washington Post.

GORDON: American ed and the Great Stagnation. "The epochal achievements of American economic growth have gone hand in hand with rising educational attainment, as the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have shown. From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl." Robert J. Gordon in The New York Times.

KRUGMAN: The wonk gap. "My guess, in other words, was that Mr. Barrasso was inadvertently illustrating the widening “wonk gap” — the G.O.P.’s near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive. Health care is the most prominent example, but the dumbing down extends across the spectrum, from budget issues to national security to poll analysis. Remember, Mitt Romney and much of his party went into Election Day expecting victory...Political conservatism and serious policy analysis can coexist, and there was a time when they did." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

HIATT: A bipartisan prescription for healthcare cost control. "In the year and a half Daschle referred to, the four former officials had crafted, under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a plan to improve U.S. health care while controlling costs...[T]he quartet lay out mechanisms in Medicare and tax policy that could propel the change, and political levers that might be applied." Fred Hiatt in The Washington Post.

Stop lying now interlude: Yes, you do judge books by their covers. Get over yourself. Everyone judges everything by its superficial appearance.

2) Lael Brainard, Fed governor?

White House is very serious on Lael Brainard for Fed post. "The White House is considering nominating a top female official at the Treasury Department to fill one of the vacant seats at the Federal Reserve...As undersecretary for international affairs, Lael Brainard is one of the most highly ranked — and most visible — female members of President Obama’s economic team. Her name has long been circulated in the insular world of Fed watchers as a potential candidate to sit on the central bank’s influential board of governors. But her conversations with the administration have ramped up recently, and she is seriously considering accepting the nomination." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Economic data coming your way this weekAmrita Jayakumar in The Washington Post.

Fannie and Freddie to cut maximum loan size. "Federal officials are preparing to reduce the maximum size of home-mortgage loans eligible for backing by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a move that is likely to face resistance from some lawmakers in Congress and the real estate industry. The proposed move is designed to wean the mortgage market off government support and allow the market for non-government-guaranteed mortgages to take a bigger role. But critics argue that any such move will shrink the pool of eligible home buyers, stunting the nation's housing recovery." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

New home prices and land prices are rising. "Already, developers report that the cost of land in the most desirable areas is double what it was two years ago...The latest land rush is in full swing, as developers realize that they have failed to feed the zoning, permitting and mapping pipeline, which can take months or years to turn raw fields into buildable lots...In August, 59 percent of builders surveyed said lot supply was low or very low, the association said." Shaila Dewan in The New York Times.

Twitter interlude: Patton Oswalt strikes again.

3) 'Land of 10,000 Lakes' becomes land of cheapest Obamacare

Minnesota claims cheapest coverage on Obamacare insurance exchanges. "Individual policies will be available for as little as $90 per month, according to the Minnesota Commerce Department. Minnesota's average premiums appear to be the lowest of the 14 states that have released their rate information so far. It would knock aside Maryland, which previously claimed the country's lowest rates...The state approved 78 plans for individuals to choose from, and the final rates were as much as 37 percent lower than what insurers initially had requested." Sam Baker in The Hill.

IBM to shift retirees off employer-sponsored plan, onto health insurance exchanges. "[IBM] plans to move about 110,000 retirees off its company-sponsored health plan and instead give them a payment to buy coverage on a health-insurance exchange, in a sign that even big, well-capitalized employers aren't likely to keep providing the once-common benefits as medical costs continue to rise...IBM said the growing cost of care makes its current plan unsustainable without big premium increases." Spencer E. Ante in The Wall Street Journal.

Left behind: Stories from Obamacare’s 31 million uninsured. "The Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping health care program created in a half century, is expected to extend coverage to 25 million Americans over the next decade, according to the most recent government estimates. But that will still leave a projected 31 million people without insurance by 2023. Those left out include undocumented workers and poor people living in the 21 states, such as Virginia, that have so far declined to expand Medicaid under the statute, commonly called Obamacare. “The law will cut the number of the uninsured in half,” said Matthew Buettgens of the Urban Institute. “This is an important development, but it certainly isn’t the definition of universal.”" Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Nurse practitioners are trying a new way to expand their role in the healthcare system. "After years of fighting doctors in state legislative battles to expand their authority, nurse practitioners are taking a new tack: asking the Obama administration to require insurers to include them in the plans offered to consumers in new online marketplaces, which open for enrollment Oct. 1...Nurse advocates want to be able to bill insurers directly for services, which would require them to be credentialed in insurers’ networks. But insurers say a mix of state laws governing nurses’ ability to practice independently complicates such efforts. They say they have taken other steps to expand primary care services, often using nurse practitioners in "medical homes," where doctors, nurses and other professionals work together to provide care." Julie Appelby in Kaiser Health News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

On Obamacare, it's defenders versus defunders. "Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a slew of House members and Tea Party leaders will host a rally Tuesday to pressure leaders not to pay for healthcare reform in the next bill to fund the government...Republican congressional leaders remain non-committal and chatter in Washington has been consumed for the last week with the debate over whether the U.S. military should intervene in Syria's civil war." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Oh my god this is so great interlude: Apparently this is a real place in Norway.

4) But wait, there's more spying

Obama administration had restrictions on NSA reversed in 2011. "The Obama administration secretly won permission from a surveillance court in 2011 to reverse restrictions on the National Security Agency’s use of intercepted phone calls and e-mails, permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans’ communications in its massive databases, according to interviews with government officials and recently declassified material. In addition, the court extended the length of time that the NSA is allowed to retain intercepted U.S. communications from five years to six years — and more under special circumstances." Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

NSA has much more access to smartphone data than previously reported. "The United States' National Security Agency intelligence-gathering operation is capable of accessing user data from smart phones from all leading manufacturers. Top secret NSA documents that SPIEGEL has seen explicitly note that the NSA can tap into such information on Apple iPhones, BlackBerry devices and Google's Android mobile operating system. The documents state that it is possible for the NSA to tap most sensitive data held on these smart phones, including contact lists, SMS traffic, notes and location information about where a user has been." Der Spiegel.

Insect interlude: Ants fight a spider, and it's amazing.

5) All renewables, all the time

Can renewable energy cut it? "According to a 2010 report, cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage could power the full electric grid up to 99.9% of the time by the year 2030." Mia Shaw in The Energy Collective.

Energy Department loses $42M on investment in van maker. "The Energy Department said Friday it will lose about $42 million on a loan to a now-shuttered Michigan company that made vans for the disabled. Vehicle Production Group, or VPG, suspended operations in February and laid off 100 workers...VPG, of Allen Park, Mich., received a federal loan in 2011 under the same clean-energy program that provided a $529 million loan to electric car maker Fisker Automotive Inc." Matthew Daly in The Associated Press.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Forget gold. Classic cars are the new hot investmentLydia DePillis.

Left behind: Stories from Obamacare’s 31 million uninsuredSarah Kliff and Lena H. Sun.

This is probably the first war in history where the attacking party has set out to not destroy the other side’. Ezra Klein.

They have no smoking gun that the attack was ordered by Assad’. Ezra Klein.

Why Keynes wouldn’t have too rosy a view of our economic futureMike Konczal.

Et Cetera

EPA cancels chemical regulationsBen Goad in The Hill.

What tax reform looks like in MexicoElisabeth Malkin in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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