The PR maze of voting on Syria strikes

Asking Congress to vote on an attack on the war-torn Middle Eastern nation was either a PR necessity for President Obama or a disaster, depending on whom you ask. Congress faces a similar dilemma.

Just a few days after President Obama requested congressional approval for a military strike on Syria as a reprimand for the country’s regime allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee started the process Wednesday with a 10-7 vote to authorize action.

It wasn’t an easy vote. Senators from both parties were among those who voted against the resolution. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) simply voted “present.” The full Senate and the House of Representatives still have to vote on the measure.

They’ll all be walking a tightrope.

“It’s a very complex answer as to who will emerge from the Syria vote as a hero and as a villain,” says Lauren Simpson, a PR and social media strategist at Cohn Marketing and self-described “news junkie.” “Honestly, it’s not so cut and dry. Likely everyone will emerge as a bit of both.”

The president’s decision

Reports have described Americans as war-weary, and the numbers back that up. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 59 percent of Americans oppose strikes and only 36 percent approve. Political party is a non-factor; Republicans, Democrats, and independents all mostly disapprove.

Simpson says Obama’s decision to ask for congressional approval wasn’t just about public polling, however. It was also about avoiding a mistake he made in the past.

“If one looks back to the Libya airstrikes, the president received an enormous amount of negative feedback regarding bypassing Congressional authorization for the strikes,” Simpson says. “Some claimed it was unconstitutional; others merely believe that it was unethical.”

David Johnson, CEO of the PR and political consulting firm Strategic Vision, says the president looks weak and that he’s “passing the buck” to Congress, to make a difficult and unpopular decision for him.

“Americans expect strong and decisive leadership from their presidents in times of crisis,” Johnson says. “This action runs counter to that PR image Americans have of a president.”

Simpson says Obama’s critics certainly will use the “passing the buck” argument, but they would have similarly criticized him if he hadn’t asked Congress for a vote.

“No matter what the president does, his opponents will try to it to paint him in a negative light,” Simpson says. “If he had taken unilateral action, it is likely that the exact same individuals would still be on the same talk shows criticizing his decision, only with different talking points.”

She adds: “At least [President Obama] not putting himself out there alone this time. This way, all congressmen and -women are forced to put a little of their own skin in the game.”

Congressional conundrum

Of course, those Congress members’ being part of the debate presents a difficult puzzle. Listen to the stunned silence from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in response to a protester:

Even Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been emphatic about the need for strikes in Syria, had to simply respond by expressing respect for “those with a different point of view.”

Simpson says part of what makes this vote so difficult for members of Congress is that it isn’t happening along traditional party lines. The more hawkish members of the Senate, such as John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are backing the Democratic president, while libertarian Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and anti-war Democrats oppose the strikes.

“I fully expect that most of Congress’ Democrats will align behind the president for the sake of the party, but it will come at a cost with the voters back home,” Simpson says. “Meanwhile, the GOP is a house divided—with the old standard bearers aligning with the president at the cost of Tea Party support.”

Still, Johnson says Congress could actually pull up its dismal approval ratings—81 percent disapproval, according to an August Gallup poll—with decisive votes for or against a strike.

“If they approve strikes against Syria, they can portray it as a profile in courage, [something] that leaders have to do for the national interest even if voters disapprove,” he says. “If they vote against it, they can argue they represent the will of the American people. They put an end to war talk and a reckless administration.”

No winners?

Lee Boggs, a professor of political marketing at West Virginia University, says it’ll be tough for anyone to come out of this situation looking particularly good.

“Americans typically rally around the flag during times of war, but the public largely views Obama’s eagerness to inject the country into another civil war, when the choices are a dictator and Al-Qaeda— which is how it is perceived—as reckless at best,” he says.

Republicans are still tied to what turned out to be faulty information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Boggs says, and now the public perceives Democrats as playing that tune once again, even if the situation is as different as they keep insisting it is.

“After seven years of Obama and the Democrats attacking [George W.] Bush over [Iraq], they all look disingenuous and untrustworthy now for doing much of the same,” he says.

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