James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Can President Obama Persuade Americans to Support His Syria Policy?

by James M. Lindsay
September 10, 2013

President Barack Obama during the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters). President Barack Obama during the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

President Obama hopes to use his nationwide address tonight to persuade Americans of the necessity to punish Syria for using chemical weapons. But two polls out this morning suggest that it is a daunting task, and not one he is likely to accomplish.

The New York Times/CBS News poll finds that six-in-ten Americans oppose airstrikes against Syria.  Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that 58 percent of Americans believe that Congress should not approve military action against Syria.

The level of public opposition that the Times/CBS and WSJ/NBC report is greater than what Gallup (51 percent) and Pew (48 percent) found in their latest polls and roughly the same as what the Washington Post/ABC News (59 percent) found. Depending on how you prefer to frame this story, the president is either not making progress in building public support or losing ground. Neither storyline is good news for the White House.

The problem President Obama faces isn’t that Americans doubt his claim that the Assad government used chemical weapons against its people. The Times/CBS poll found that three out of four Americans agree that it did.

His problem instead is that Americans aren’t persuaded that a military strike makes sense. The president presented the case for military action when he announced his request for congressional authorization and at his press conference at the G-20 Summit. Various administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power have repeated those arguments. Nonetheless, the WSJ/NBC News poll found that 54 percent of Americans don’t believe that the White House has made a convincing case. The Times/CBS News poll finds that nearly eight-in-ten Americans believe that the administration has not adequately explained the need to attack Syria.

Americans look to be especially doubtful of the administration’s assurance that airstrikes would not entail broader U.S. involvement in Syria. The Times/CBS News poll finds that 66 percent of Americans say they are “very” concerned that military action in Syria would be long and costly, and 21 percent are “somewhat” concerned.

The late-breaking diplomatic effort to have Syria relinquish control of its chemical weapons may spare President Obama from having to overcome these doubts in tonight’s speech. But if not, he faces tough odds. As I noted in a post last week, the political science literature suggests that the power of the presidential bully pulpit is exaggerated.  If the political scientists are right, and sometimes they are, the odds grow dimmer that Congress will give the president the authorization he has requested.

On that score, the WSJ/NBC News poll has more bad news for the president: 59 percent of Americans say they would oppose his ordering strikes against Syria over Congress’s objection. So while the White House has carefully left the door open to striking Syria no matter how Congress votes, that looks to be a door better left closed.

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