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Syria is Obama’s biggest leadership test yet

President Obama (Jonathan Ernst - REUTERS) President Obama (Jonathan Ernst - REUTERS)

President Obama's response to the crisis in Syria has raised plenty of understandably critical questions about his leadership.

By now, many have noted the mistake Obama made by saying in mid-August that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "red line" for the administration--which ended up placing him in a rhetorical trap. There's also been much criticism of the mixed message he's sending by talking openly about plans for a military attack and touting the administration's power to do what it wants, even as he brings the decision to a Congressional vote. Finally, the president's failure to secure our international allies and put in place a plan for action long ago, especially after his drawing of a red line, is rightfully being called "alarming."

But those stumbles are in the past, and more analysis won't change the fact that, when it comes to Syria, Obama has nothing but bad options. Instead, the focus should be on his biggest leadership test yet--getting the most partisan and gridlocked Congress in memory to sign on to his plan for force. He may not need it, but going forward without it would present an image to the world of a divided United States, an isolated president, and a weakened leader who does not have the support of his country or potentially even his party.

Consider what he's dealing with. This is a legislative body, particularly the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, that seems bent on obfuscation at every turn. It practices brinksmanship-style politics on raising the debt ceiling with seemingly little care for what that could mean to the economy. It's a House with such extreme politics that even farm bills have become controversial. It's a Senate where agreeing to confirm even mundane government appointees has moved at a glacial pace. How might Obama score support when his prospects for a "yes" vote are far from certain?

The president is "flooding the zone," meeting with key committee leaders and holding classified briefings each day this week. He is agreeing to be flexible and to rewrite the resolution to address concerns of lawmakers. And he is going after the support of key Senate and House leaders, such as Sen. John McCain and House Speaker John Boehner, who could help him sell the plan. It will be days before we know if the risky gambit will pay off for Obama. Yes, the decision to consult Congress might challenge Boehner on his request to consult lawmakers on the decision, spread responsibility around, and force future Republican contenders to state their case. Still, all of those are political achievements.

If the president wants to score a leadership triumph, he will need to convince what appears to be a fairly daunting number of skeptical and undecided members to sign on. If he does, the surprise move to seek Congressional approval could end up looking like an astute--even shrewd--play that shows a leader with the strong backing of his country, rather than a hesitant leader merely buying himself time.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Obama's Egypt remarks highlight his tepid leadership

Why Obama's message to marines probably won't do much

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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