President Confronts Skeptical Nation as Syria Compromise Emerges

BY Christina Bellantoni  September 10, 2013 at 8:51 AM EDT

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“I don’t think I’m going to convince the overwhelmingly majority of the American people.”

President Barack Obama acknowledged Monday he faces a groundswell of opposition as he prepares to outline his case for military action against Syria in a national address Tuesday night.

He told PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill that he understands why the nation is “wary” and “suspicious” of pursuing any force in response to the Syrian government’s Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack against its own people.

The Morning Line“I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get a majority of the American people after a decade of war after what happened in Iraq to say that any military action particularly in the Middle East makes sense in the absence of some direct threat or attack against us,” the president told Gwen. He spoke with the NewsHour as part of a round robin of interviews with the three network television stations, CNN and Fox. The president also admitted his own struggle, saying, “I got elected to end wars, not start them.”

Mr. Obama has struggled to reverse public opinion. A handful of polls released this week found not only that a majority of Americans oppose even a limited airstrike in Syria, but also that opposition to the president’s plan has grown. Most of the surveys, including this Washington Post-ABC News poll, found no demographic or political group backing U.S. military action in Syria.

The lack of support comes from a general fatigue of war and a failure by the administration to clearly explain its mission. This CBS News/New York Times poll found 79 percent of Americans didn’t see the administration’s goals in Syria. An Associated Press poll found few people have responded to the White House’s argument that a failure to act on Syria’s use of chemical weapons could embolden other countries. The poll showed more than half of Americans believe a U.S. strike could lead to a longer military conflict.

These surveys on Syria could have wider implications for a president also facing a headwind trying to move his agenda through a gridlocked Congress. The Syria situation has shifted lawmakers’ attention away from comprehensive immigration reform and gives Congress even less time to work on a pile of fiscal issues with September deadlines. Almost three-quarters of respondents to this NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said the United States should focus more on domestic problems.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating dipped into the negative for the first time in more than a year, with his approval rating for his handling of foreign policy down more than a dozen points, according to a USA Today-Pew Research Center poll that asked about the president’s work as well as a possible conflict in Syria.

The NewsHour examined the public opinion with the directors of two of these polls, Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center and Jennifer Agiesta of the AP.

Watch here or below:

But there might be a way to achieve a compromise.

Monday, diplomatic efforts seemed to pay off as Russia floated a plan to move chemical weapons to a safe place in Syria.

And breaking on the Associated Press Tuesday morning was news that Syria would accept the proposal. The AP reported in its alert: “Syrian foreign minister says Syria has accepted Russian proposal to surrender control over its chemical weapons.”

Mr. Obama told Gwen Ifill he talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the idea.

“I did have those conversations. And this is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time,” he said.

[My intention throughout this process has been to ensure that the blatant use of chemical weapons that we saw doesn't happen again. If in fact there's a way to accomplish that diplomatically, that is overwhelmingly my preference. And you know, I have instructed John Kerry to talk directly to the Russians and run this to ground. And if we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I'm all for it.

And the president told ABC News' Diane Sawyer it was a "modestly positive development."

As Politico's Josh Gerstein describes it, Mr. Obama "has stumbled into a possible resolution of the Syria showdown" with Russia's proposal giving the president "a potential way to wriggle out of his political predicament." And the Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb details the muddled messages coming from the administration.

While the Russians may have helped the Obama administration in the short term, the president faces a tough audience on Capitol Hill Tuesday when he meets with both Senate Republicans and Democrats during their caucus lunches.

The Senate initially would have faced a first test vote on the resolution Wednesday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reversed his plans and will wait for the president's address to the nation Tuesday night before setting the procedural wheels in motion on the legislation authorizing force in Syria.

No matter what happens in the Senate, it's looking like an even tougher sell in the House. Members we've been speaking to say they are hard-pressed to find any constituents back home who back military action in Syria, and even loyal Democrats in safe districts have told us they just can't support Mr. Obama on this one.

Consider these two very different statements coming from the offices of two very different lawmakers.

Mitchell Rivard, a spokesman for Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., said Monday his boss welcomes hearing from his constituents on what is not "an easy decision," and noted he is attending briefings and has held multiple meetings back home:

"Congressman Kildee has not made a decision for or against limited U.S. military strikes in Syria. He continues to evaluate intelligence regarding the matter."

And Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., told his constituents in a newsletter Monday he is "grateful for every opinion" he's received.

"More than 1,200 people have contacted my offices to formally express their views on this matter," he wrote, noting the issue has surpassed gun rights as the top issue his office has heard about this year.

He referenced the diplomatic news, writing: "If Russia and Syria are serious and willing to prove that they mean it, hasn't the Administration's point been made?"

Griffith concluded by saying he remains undecided:

At this time I'm not sure it is in the United States' strategic interest to intervene militarily, though I remain willing to listen to the Administration's case. Respectfully, I seek prayers for discernment from you as the debate regarding any involvement in the Syrian civil war continues.

They illustrate the position lawmakers find themselves in, possibly more than a week before facing a floor vote on the issue.

The Washington Post has a handy guide for seeing where members of Congress stand so far on the resolution.

The president isn't the only one doing outreach. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough will attend the House Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday to make the case, and Vice President Joe Biden will continue his push in a meeting with House Republicans at the White House.

Watch Gwen's full interview with the president here or below:

The NewsHour will cover the president's 9 p.m. eastern speech in full and feature analysis afterward from Mark Shields and David Brooks. Watch on your PBS affiliate or on our livestream.

LINE ITEMS

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added her voice to support Mr. Obama's push for a strike in Syria.

  • New York City voters head to the polls in mayoral primaries Tuesday. The New York Times rounds up the stakes

  • Colorado voters Tuesday decide the fate of two Democratic state lawmakers in a recall election sparked by a tough new gun control law passed this spring. On the NewsHour Monday, Judy Woodruff talked to Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee about the contest.

  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hosted a dinner with House Democrats to talk immigration.

  • Colorful Virginia political strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democrat, has endorsed Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the state's race for governor. Sauders has been generating a good deal of buzz lately, recently earning a spot on the Washington Post's list of top 10 political nicknames and inspiring this showdown with another political strategist named "Mudcat."

  • Stuart Rothenberg changed his rating of the Virginia gubernatorial race between Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe from "Tossup" to "Lean Democrat."

  • Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie has called a special legislative session for late October to consider a bill that would legalize gay marriage in the state. Hawaii currently allows same-sex couples to have civil unions, a legal status that marriage advocates have criticized as too limited since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which extended federal benefits to all married same-sex couples.

  • Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and possible 2016 presidential hopeful will publish a book on the future of the Republican Party just after the 2014 midterm elections.

  • Politico's David Rogers explains a new procedural tactic that House Republicans might use to defund implementation of Obamacare without shutting down the government.

  • Famed musician Neil Young was on Capitol Hill Monday to lobby for the Farm Bill.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

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