Politics

President Obama’s Big Syria Power Giveaway

But now Congress is the “dog that caught the car,” Axelrod gloats.

President Obama speaks at the Rose Garden of the White House Saturday. Mike Theiler / Reuters

President Barack Obama’s abrupt decision to hand over the choice to strike Syria to Congress may or may not wind up dislodging President Bashar al Assad from Damascus — but the American leader has already struck a rare and dramatic blow against his own power.

Presidents for decades have ignored the Constitutional requirement that Congress authorize acts of war, launching attacks from Kosovo to Libya without authorization. Presidents Bush and Obama took a 2001 authorization of the use of force against terrorists as a carte blanche for a global secret war from Rome to Pakistan; the last formal authorization came in 2003, for Iraq. And Obama — the president who spent the summer defending the vast surveillance power of the National Security Agency — had shown no particular inclination to give up presidential authority.

But Saturday’s announcement redefines the playing field over national security, delivering, six years late, on a promise he made during his presidential campaign, and more broadly on the vision of the presidency that he was elected by an anti-war Democratic Party to install.

“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” candidate Obama told he Boston Globe in 2007.

The politics of Washington’s great institutions — the presidency; the congress; the courts — do not always align with partisan politics, and Congressional leaders had no choice but to celebrate the president’s surprise move.

“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress. We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria,” the House Republican leaders said in a joint statement. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the judiciary committee and a Democrat, called the move “especially commendable… given the positions taken by past presidents.”

Liberals who spent years arguing that President George W. Bush had abused executive power also celebrated the move.

“It’s great news that President Obama is seeking congressional approval for military action, an important precedent for all future presidents,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “After years of societal and international norms being thrown out the door — and things like torture, violations of civil liberties, and war becoming normalized — today’s announcement is an important down payment on proper norms and regular order being restored.”

But the politics of institutions always overlap with the more conventional politics of parties, and some on the left saw Obama’s speech as a double victory:

For while the weakened presidency may sting, Obama can at least enjoy watching a wedge sink more deeply into the Republican Party. The upstart libertarian wing has been eager for open conflict with hawkish old war horses led by Senator John McCain, and with an establishment whose tradition is of hawkish bipartisanship. Now Kentucky’s Rand Paul and his allies can look for new traction at no political cost: Paul said Saturday he was “encouraged” by Obama’s move, while Texas’s Ted Cruz, possibly for the first time, “commended” Obama. The new Republican libertarians’ internal enemies will get no political benefit from backing President Obama’s war.

Thus Obama’s longtime political guru, David Axelrod, couldn’t resist a bit of gloating on Twitter:

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