To sell Syria strike, White House turns to Obama brain trust

September 3, 2013

For a White House embarked on a new campaign to convince the public of the need to intervene militarily in Syria, Tuesday’s meeting amounted to staff reunion.

Three of the president’s top aides — White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and communications director Jennifer Palmieri — met with more than half a dozen trusted former Obama staffers to formulate a communications strategy on the subject. Buoyed by the backing of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), but still confronting an American public deeply skeptical of armed intervention overseas, the White House faces the challenge of mobilizing popular support for yet another military venture in the Middle East.

The group included men and women steeped in politics as well as communications and national security: former senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe; Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary; former White House communications director Anita Dunn; Stephanie Cutter , who served as deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 campaign; Tommy Vietor, former National Security Council spokesman; and Jon Favreau, who was the president’s speechwriter. Vietor and Favreau now have a joint communications firm.

A White House official who asked not to be identified, because the meeting was private, wrote in an e-mail that the session was not unusual. “We hold regular sessions with folks like this all the time,” the official wrote.

Still, participants in the session, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about it, said the meeting focused on the situation in Syria. Many of the former aides are now sought-after television pundits, giving them the opportunity to not only suggest tactics behind closed doors but convey the president’s message to a national audience.

“It was a conversation about what had occurred, the administration’s thinking and a conversation about how to communicate that to the American people,” said one participant, adding that one of the challenges the White House faces is in explaining both “what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do,” since the United States will not be deploying troops.

The White House held a similar session in late May as the administration sought to move beyond the controversy over the Internal Revenue Service’s focus on conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

In many ways, the session highlighted the extent to which current events can drive White House strategy. Obama has spent weeks highlighting his plan to bolster the nation’s middle class, and he is spending the bulk of the week overseas in Sweden and then at a meeting with other world leaders in Russia.

But even as the president engages in international diplomacy, his top advisers and allies aim to convince the American people to support what is now a critical plank in his foreign policy agenda, or risk an unpalatable political loss.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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