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Leading from Behind Congress

by Jerry Bader

Since the 2008 Presidential election I have characterized Barack Obama's strategy in all things as "endeavoring to keep his jersey clean." I first coined this when his opponent that year, Senator John McCain, rushed into the financial crisis and Obama stayed far away. President Obama has employed the same strategy in his four and one half years plus in office. But this strategy has never been as naked as it was with his stunning move Saturday to seek congressional approval before intervening in Syria's civil war.

The Wall Street Journal rightly points out that this is almost purely a political calculation and not a foreign policy one. It is as though Mr. Obama suddenly realized Friday evening that he was completely isolated in his decision to engage in Syria. There would be no congressional fingerprints on this action. There would be only France to point to as a partner. If this fails, it's on him. So despite Secretary of State John Kerry's dire pronouncements earlier on Friday, the President ultimately gave into his political instincts; somebody else had to be in this with him or he wouldn't do it. 

He knows the message the world will receive if Congress rebuffs him so yes, as the Journal points out, he's expecting the Congress to be the adult in the room, just as he did with every ultimatum scenario he has set up for him during his presidency. Obama adviser David Axelrod characterized this in a tweet as the dog having caught the car. Congress has what it said it wanted, input on Syria. What does it do now? That's Axelrod assuming Congress will give Obama authorization. He can't imagine them threatening American credibility by making Obama go it alone. What if it does? Who will be dog and who will be car then? What does President Obama do if he's been rebuffed by the UN, Britain and his own Congress? Does he not intervene when he said there was no choice but to intervene? What message will that send?

Should congress authorize? Not the action Obama is proposing. A "shot across the bow" will accomplish nothing. And the administration insists it doesn't need Congress' blessing anyway, so if they approve a more robust action, will he take it? Or will he ignore their will and press on with his more limited proposal? And if that fails, isn't he back where he started, on the hook by himself? President Obama created this conundrum when he set his "red line" with Syria. He complicated beyond imagination when he realized Friday he was violating his "clean jersey" doctrine. Congress should do what it thinks is right, not that which rescues Mr. Obama politically.