President Obama, speaking at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg on Friday, reminded me of an investment banker trying to sell a deal he doesn't believe in. And the customer knows it.
Halting. Hesitant. Uncertain. Uncomfortable. That's what Obama's statement and body language had to say.
On the verge of a potentially huge defeat on the Syrian question in Congress, President Obama is in a box. He's looking for a way out, but he can't find one. He's losing supporters in the legislature at home, and he didn't gain any at the G-20 summit abroad.
When Obama speaks to the American people on Tuesday, maybe he'll pull a rabbit out of the hat. But House and Senate members and their staffers on both the left and right say the grassroots do not want a Syrian bombing mission. I can't speak for the left. But I know conservatives do not trust the president in his role as commander in chief. They want more than a shot across the bow, but they're not hearing clear strategies and intentions.
Worse, in recent days, the president has retreated back to terms such as "limited," "narrow," "tailored," and "negotiated." He is reminding everyone that he has no intention of a Bashar al-Assad regime change or of crippling the Syrian military.
Some news accounts imply a tougher mission that would take out the Syrian air force and airports and cripple command and control, along with any related chemical-weapons delivery systems. But this sounds more like Secretary of State John Kerry, who has done a good job outlining the military and strategic imperatives of a tough attack. It's not coming from President Obama.
At the G-20, it was Vladimir Putin who sounded tough as he pledged aid to Syria in the event of an American attack. And that brings up the question of retaliation by Iran and Hezbollah. In that event, what will Israel do? Counterattacks have not been addressed. There's no sense of what might happen next.
A congressional defeat on Syria might well be catastrophic for American credibility, as Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham suggest and as Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor echo in the House. Everybody seems to know this except the president.
It's a very bad situation in and of itself. But spillover effects into economic and fiscal affairs will make it worse.
For example, take Friday's jobs report. It came in well below expectations. In fact, it looks like the pace of job creation is slowing, meaning there will be no second-half economic upturn.
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