As Congress continues to “debate” whether to approve a resolution authorizing President Obama to launch a bombing campaign in Syria, perhaps the most fascinating question in all of this is whether Obama would go ahead and do it even if Congress votes no (and it appears that the House may well do exactly that). Paul Waldman thinks the answer is yes:
The Washington Post is keeping a whip count, which at this point in the House has 86 members against, another 92 leaning no, only 19 in favor, and 103 officially undecided (that leaves 135 for which they haven’t ascertained an opinion). In other words, the skeptics are much more numerous at this point, but there’s plenty of room to assemble a majority in favor of a strike. But what if the House does vote no?
It’s hard to imagine the Obama administration will pull back. After all, they’ve said quite clearly that they believe they don’t need Congress’ approval, and they will have spent weeks making the case that striking Syria is utterly vital to U.S. national-security interests. It would seem likely they’d go ahead and launch some missiles anyway.
And indeed, that’s what the obviously intentional leaks from the administration strongly suggested immediately after the president said he would seek congressional authorization for a strike. Within an hour, there were reports that “White House sources” said that the president is convinced that he doesn’t need such authorization (his own statements as a candidate notwithstanding) and would go ahead with a bombing campaign with or without the assent of Congress. But the White House now appears to be walking that back a bit, with other anonymous sources saying they wouldn’t do that. And Peter Baker of the New York Times is right that doing so would be very dangerous for the president politically:
In private, Mr. Obama and his team see the votes as a guidepost for the rest of his presidency well beyond the immediate question of launching missiles at Syrian military targets. If Congress does not support a relatively modest action in response to a chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people in Syria, Obama advisers said, the president will not be able to count on support for virtually any use of force.
Although Mr. Obama has asserted that he has the authority to order the strike on Syria even if Congress says no, White House aides consider that almost unthinkable. As a practical matter, it would leave him more isolated than ever and seemingly in defiance of the public’s will at home. As a political matter, it would almost surely set off an effort in the House to impeach him, which even if it went nowhere could be distracting and draining.
Absolutely true. If President Obama launched an attack in the face of a no vote from Congress, he would be isolating himself politically. It’s one thing to tell Congress to go to hell on an issue where you have public opinion on your side, as he did when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthy and not shutting down the government. It’s quite another to go it alone on something that the American public is strongly against, and the polls show overwhelming disapproval of military intervention in Syria.
White House advisers have to know that going lone wolf on something this unpopular could further reduce his chances of getting the rest of his agenda pass, already significantly weakened by Republican control of the House. But if the House says no and puts themselves where the people clearly are, Obama could kill off the rest of his political leverage by bucking that tide.