WASHINGTON (AP) — Some of President Barack Obama’s top allies say the president misread a few crucial political forces when he asked Congress to support his bid to strike Syria.
Chief among Obama’s missteps, they say, was underestimating the nation’s profound weariness with military entanglements in the Middle East, fed by residual anger over the origins of the Iraq war, and overestimating lawmakers’ willingness to make risky votes 14 months before the next congressional elections.
“I can’t understand the White House these days,” said Rep. Jim Moran, an early and enthusiastic supporter of a strike against Syria over last month’s chemical weapons attack. Rather than unexpectedly asking for Congress’ blessing on Aug. 31, Moran said, Obama might have quietly called House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to say, “‘I’m thinking of sending this vote to the Congress. How do you think it might turn out?’”
“She would have said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Moran said. “She knows where the votes stand.”
In recent days, Obama put military decisions on hold and asked Congress to halt plans to vote on a strike authorization while diplomats explore Russia’s proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. The pause has given the president’s friends time to ponder why Congress, and especially the House, seemed to be moving against his push for military action against Syria’s government.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat like Obama and Moran, said calls and emails from his Baltimore district were running about 99-1 against military intervention in Syria. Many House colleagues, he said, report feedback nearly as one-sided.
Cummings said he told Obama at a recent meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that “once he asked for Congress to give its consent, he also asked for the public’s consent.” Americans aren’t willing to grant it, Cummings said.
“My constituents love the president,” Cummings added. “They are just tired of war.”
Cummings added that the nation is unwilling to forgive or forget President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq on eventually discredited claims about weapons of mass destruction and the likelihood of easy U.S. success.
Obama needed a concise, compelling argument to overcome resistance, but his team didn’t produce one, several lawmakers said this week. They cited Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurance of an “unbelievably small” U.S. military strike as one example of comments that left people bewildered.
“In times of crisis, the more clarity the better,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican and strong supporter of U.S. intervention in Syria. “This has been confusing. For those who are inclined to support the president, it’s been pretty hard to nail down what the purpose of a military strike is.”
Graham said the administration didn’t adequately explain why Americans should be morally outraged — and militarily involved — by that chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 although the United States stood by as an estimated 100,000 Syrians were killed by convention weapons during a 2½-year civil war.
“Is it really about HOW people died?” Graham said.
As the U.S. debate over Syria grew, public sentiment increasingly turned against the military role Obama advocated. A four-day Pew Research Center survey, which ended the day after Obama asked for congressional approval, found 48 percent of Americans opposed to airstrikes against Syria. A Pew poll conducted a week later found 63 percent of Americans opposed to the idea.
The White House says Obama fully understood the public relations difficulties he faced. The president knows “the American people and their representatives are understandably and justifiably weary of military conflict and wary of new military conflict,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
“The president acknowledged from the beginning that this would be a challenge,” Carney said.
Underscoring that point, Obama was compelled to lobby the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state. He couldn’t sway Smith, who candidly expressed concerns about military strikes.
Smith’s frustration was evident at a closed-door Democratic meeting Thursday morning when he complained to White House legislative aides in the room about the answers he was getting, according to congressional aides.
Obama supporters cite other hurdles, including a tendency of many Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose almost anything Obama proposes.
Democrat Rep. Peter Welch said Obama was confronting public sentiments that may be insurmountable.
“The country is war-weary, and it’s very powerful,” Welch said. “People are burned by Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.