President Obama surprised many (including the U.S. military, apparently) with his decision to emulate his predecessor by seeking congressional authorization to attack a Baathist regime in the Middle East.
The media’s reaction, while predictable, has bordered on parody, lending weight to conservative suspicions about the press corps’ particular devotion to the current president. “Quite extraordinary: after 30 years of presidents strengthening powers of exec branch, POTUS is giving some of that power back to Congress,” NBC’s Chuck Todd gushed on Twitter.
Numerous outlets echoed this theme of Obama as restorer of the Constitution. BuzzFeed wrote of Obama’s “big Syria power giveaway.” The Hill reported that the decision to seek congressional approval “breaks from precedent” and “represented a departure from the policies of several predecessors,” while somewhat awkwardly noting that George W. Bush sought (and won, overwhelmingly) authorization for the Iraq War and the invasion of Afghanistan — as Bush’s father did before the First Gulf War.
Yahoo! News columnist Walter Shapiro praised Obama’s “history-defying decision,” saying it “may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek its backing to launch the Korean war.” He neglected to mention the recent examples undermining that fearsome trend, other than to denounce the younger Bush’s “hyperbolic . . . claims about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.”
Given his predecessor’s willingness to seek authorization (something that many demanded of him), it seems odd to credit President Obama with breaking a precedent — and all the more so when Bush wasn’t exactly hailed as a history-defying leader when he decided to seek authorization from Congress to launch a war. But the media do seem to have a short memory when it comes to comparisons between the Bush and Obama administrations. The recent hysteria over a few Republicans using the word “impeachment,” for example, completely (or perhaps conveniently) ignored the actual Democratic efforts to impeach President Bush during his second term.
Obama made clear in his Rose Garden announcement that he wasn’t seeking Congress’s approval out of constitutional necessity. “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” he said, arguing that the “country will be stronger” if Congress grants authorization. That happens to be precisely the argument the Bush administration made in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002. The president also acknowledged during a press conference in Sweden on Wednesday that the United States “may not be directly, imminently threated” by the conflict in Syria.
As liberal commentators such as E. J. Dionne and Nicholas Kristof — along with a host of previously “anti-war” Democrats — have lined up in support of Obama’s plan to attack Syria, there has been relatively little discussion about the president’s blatant disavowal of the opinion he expressed as a candidate in 2007, when he told the Boston Globe that “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.”
So why did Obama turn to Congress at the last minute? According to the Wall Street Journal, the decision “reflected his growing frustration with lawmakers who appeared to want to have it both ways — criticizing the president for not seeking congressional authorization, and then criticizing the decisions he makes.” That explanation doesn’t quite fit the narrative of a world leader humbly ceding authority to the people’s elected representatives. It sounds more like a politician trying to outmaneuver his critics. “Congress is now the dog that caught the car,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote following the president’s announcement. “Should be a fascinating week!”
For many conservatives, it has been fascinating to watch the Left, including its factotums in the media, rally behind a Democratic president preparing to go to war. “This is not Iraq,” they insist. Opposition to George W. Bush’s “interventionist” foreign policy and anti-terrorism measures was one of the defining characteristics of Obama’s historic rise to power. But, Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) explained during a markup hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, “This is different.”
“The president’s my friend,” he said. “I’m proud of him. And I respect his values because I know him as well, or better, than most any person in this town.”
And friends stick together.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.