With war against Syria averted, or perhaps postponed, U.S. President Barack Obama can turn again to September’s anticipated battles against his still-implacable Republican opponents.
Looming is a Sept. 30 deadline for Congress to fund ongoing government operations – everything from food stamps to new bullets – and a showdown is shaping up between a weakened President and Republicans riven by their own divisions.
Then, some time in October, the U.S. Treasury will face another crisis as it reaches its borrowing limit. Without an increase, which some Republicans want to block, the U.S. government could face default. Meanwhile, hopes for progress on major policy initiatives such immigration reform, long expected to be the big legislative issue this fall, are fading.
As hostile as relations are, some observers suggest the averted showdown over Syria – it’s now widely accepted that Congress would have rejected Mr. Obama’s call for an authorization of force had it gone to a vote – didn’t make things any worse.
“We don’t know what September would have looked like in the absence of the Syria issue but my guess is that it would have looked an awful lot like it looks today,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who watches Congress closely.
“These divisions over spending and size of government have been with us all along and the [Republican] opposition to Obama has been quite strong all along. … Set aside the issue of Syria and really nothing has changed.”
The President’s handling of Syria has hurt him, according to some. Mr. Obama “seems to be very uncomfortable being commander-in-chief of this nation,” said Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, adding it left the President “ a diminished figure here on Capitol Hill.”
Americans strongly opposed military intervention in Syria but they still want their presidents to command global respect. Mr. Obama’s embrace of Russian help on Syria may enhance his image internationally as a conciliator but, at home, it can be seen as seen as weak – or vacillating. Americans want their presidents to speak softly and carry a big stick, even if they are also weary of overseas wars.
In turn, despite the President’s impressive oratory, he may be wearing out his bully pulpit. Powerful speeches have failed, so far – on gun control, budget reform and immigration – and now the President has spent more scarce second-term political capital wooing congressional leaders on Syrian strikes that may never materialize.
The mood is ugly on Capitol Hill and it’s made worse by warnings that delays and the time spent talking about Syria may cost members the week off they had planned starting Sept 23.
With the President’s approval rating plunging – and backing for “Obamacare” slipping below 40 per cent – the right wing of the Republican party is seeking ways to “defund” the ambitious health-care program. The most recent Pew Research Center poll, published last week, put the President’s approval at 44 per cent, down 11 points over a year ago.
On Capitol Hill, it’s a three-cornered fight, with Mr. Obama facing off against the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and the Republicans in Congress bitterly divided over whether it’s worth pushing the nation over a fiscal cliff to drive a stake into the President’s health-care program.
One grand plan that would have funded the government, raised the debt ceiling and delayed Obamacare for a year seems dead on arrival The President “will never accept anything that delays or defunds” health care, White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week.
Everyone has an eye on the 2014 elections and frustrations are threatening to boil.
“The anarchists have taken over,” railed Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and Majority leader. He accused the Republican leadership of allowing the party’s right wing to block efforts at finding a deal.
“We’re in a position here where people who don’t believe in government – and that’s what the Tea Party is all about – are winning,” Mr. Reid said.
Republican Leader Speaker John Boehner, who backed the President on Syria and irked those in his party who want Mr. Obama opposed on everything, still says that a deal can be found.
“I think there’s a way to get there,” he said late last week, before droves of legislators headed home for a three-day weekend. “There are a million options,” he added.
But even as Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have dropped sharply, they still remain well above the abysmal levels recorded by Congress.
Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mr. Obama added to the public disaffection with Washington with his handling of Syria. “Nobody in Washington,” she added, “looks very good these days.”