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Why Obama's old bag of tricks won't persuade Congress, Americans on Syria

No political spin can negate the political risk associated with supporting intervention in Syria. As Obama makes his case for military strikes to Congress and the American people, he should offer straight talk on why he thinks his policy is in the long-term interest of the country.

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Let’s say, however, that the hawks are right and that American inaction emboldens the Syrian government to use more chemical weapons against its own people. That result would surely trigger a sea-change in public opinion, wouldn’t it?

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Actually, there is little reason to think that it would. Voters do not pay much heed to what happens elsewhere in the world, unless it directly affects American lives and interests. In a 2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 83 percent said that protecting American jobs should be an important policy goal. Only 28 percent said the same of protecting human rights. Former President Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his tenure was his failure to stop the Rwandan genocide, which took hundreds of thousands of lives. That failure had no political impact. Americans scarcely noticed.

Lawmakers may not read the bills, but they do read the tea leaves. They know that supporting military intervention offers little political advantage but carries serious risk. Conversely, opposing it offers both political safety and a chance of a considerable payoff.

In this respect, Syria is different from every other major issue that the president has brought before Congress. On matters such as health care and immigration, he has mobilized large constituencies with a material stake in backing the administration’s position. He and his team have been able to tell lawmakers that there would be at least some political benefit to taking their side. Not this time.

To make its case to lawmakers and the public, the White House has been leaning heavily on the old Obama campaign political brain trust: strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe, former press secretary Robert Gibbs, and former deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. Relying on the political spin of these players to sell his message on Syria is a bad mistake for the president. These operatives know all about back-room deals, sound bites, snarky attacks, and rousing emotional appeals – but this bag of tricks is useless to the president now.

In fact, it’s worse than useless. Voters have seen the magic show before, and they likely don’t think it’s appropriate in a matter of war and peace. Even worse, the involvement of old campaign hands merely reinforces GOP suspicions that the president has a hidden partisan agenda on Syria.

The president should hang up on the political operators. As he crafts his messages to Congress and the American people, he should listen exclusively to military officers and experts in national security. He has to adopt what Madison called “the mild voice of reason,” offering simple, straight talk on why he thinks his policy is in the long-term interest of the country.

That course of action is not easy. It goes against a lifetime of political habits. But it’s the difference between being an ambitious young Illinois politician and being president of the United States.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics and coauthor of “After Hope and Change: the 2012 Elections and American Politics.”


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