The Politics of Going Public

The Syrian crisis and the debt ceiling/government funding crisis have one thing in common in my mind.


In each situation, President Obama has a chance to “look Presidential” by being decisive. To be short about it, “Presidents order military strikes based on moral/strategic prerogative” and “Presidents tell Congress that the business of governing goes on.”

But what’s different about this situation?

I and others have thought and discussed the two crises ad nauseam.  But their interaction is the point of this post.  While I discussed this earlier, I will take a different, ahem, take in this post.

Syria comes first: Obama might or might not have personal beliefs about what is best to do there but let’s accept as plausible that “doing nothing” requires no explanation: the default of “don’t put Americans in harm’s way” is a safe and understandable (even when wrong) option. To do something requires explanation (especially after Iraq).  There are some layers there, given the various subtle differentiations between “airstrikes” and “boots on the ground,” but the point remains: if Obama wants to do more than a one-off strike on Syria, he needs to explain to America (read: insure himself in Congress) why this is a good idea.

Now we turn to the coming budget showdown: Obama will have no choice but to face a choice here.  Let’s stipulate that Congress ain’t going to hand him a sequester-free continuing resolution (longhand in today’s world for “federal budget”). So, he will face meaningful calls for veto threats, stonewalling, and general resistance to whatever Congress sends to his desk. And, of course, if Congress sends him nothing, then he is forced to face the question of how to avoid/deal with default.

Ugh.  I mean, $400K is a lot of sugar, but that job SOUNDS LIKE IT SUCKS RIGHT ABOUT NOW.

All that said, and while I have already said/implied that I think committing troops/materiel to Syria would put the GOP in a tough spot while also saying that he may very well (and understandably) not know what to do, I want to point out that Obama lingering on the sidelines on Syria, as morally slippery as that may be, might be the right strategic call.  While he dithers and is lampooned by Putin, Gates, and Panetta, Obama is reserving the flexibility to “go public” with a fuller narrative.  When and if the debt/funding crisis comes to his doorstep, Obama arguably has the ability to distract/dissimulate/refocus the public on “the big (Presidential) moments” as he sees fit.  This won’t work with certainty, of course, there are always Benghazis/Wacos/Katrinas to wreck a hard-working President’s day.  But, I’ll just point out that there’s one thing more Presidential than stepping in front of the camera and making the hard call and, as usual, it is referenced in Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler.”

Real leaders know when to hold their Presidential opportunities until they are at their most ripe as Presidential moments.  From a strategic perspective, Obama has one distinct and enduring advantage over Congress: he not only gets to decide, but he also can—within reason—decide when and in front of whom to decide.

With that, I leave you with this.

One thought on “The Politics of Going Public

  1. One of the earliest constitutions which gives so much of power (Near absolute ?) and enough room to react on exigencies, doing public vetting on certain decisions (few may be less important) looks like some kind of precedent setting.

    America appears to have guarded itself from an outright tyranny which is prevalent in third and Muslim world, because most of the presidents were some kind of Plato’s Philosopher kings, but I know many would disagree with this assertion.

    While there is no disagreement that the president gets to decide when and in front of whom, but the larger question I feel it should be, is he not shackling the future presidents by his current actions.The expectations of the public will be raised ?

    Going or not going to public may not be an issue in a country like India for example, they are mostly ritualistic, where once a year the prime minister or the president will address the nation on independence day. And no importance is given to clarify their stance to the public directly before/after taking critical decisions.

    I forgot to mention they go around during election campaigns.

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