President Obama, Syria, and the limits of BS

President Obama’s speech regarding Syria on Tuesday is best viewed as an attempt at political damage control. Obama hoped to stem the growing (and correct) public perception that he blundered badly at one or more stages of this crisis. His target audience was the only cohort to which he might provide reassurance — those who haven’t been paying close attention.

I thought that Obama had pulled off this limited feat, and that, absent a U.S. attack on Syria or the further use of chemical weapons by Assad, Obama would not suffer much additional political damage because of this matter.

Last night on Fox News, however, I happened to see the reaction of a Frank Luntz focus group to Obama’s speech. The comments of the participants showed widespread dissatisfaction with both the speech and Obama’s underlying behavior. The dissatisfaction crossed party lines.

Two caveats may be in order. First, it seemed that the focus group discussed the Syrian situation before viewing Obama’s speech. By doing so, its members became a relatively high-information audience. Thus, their reactions to the speech were not necessarily the reactions of Obama’s target audience — those who haven’t been paying close attention.

Second, a group dynamic seems to have been at work in Luntz’s group. The reaction of Democrats during the speech — as reflected in the moving line on a graph that’s based on the use of dials in real time — was more positive than their post-hoc commentary. Most viewers at home presumably were not subject to a strong group dynamic immediately following the speech.

But a group dynamic may be at work nonetheless. Late night comedians — David Letterman included — are ridiculing Obama over Syria. I imagine they will want to move on in a day or two, but the impression they have left may well persist.

Moreover, the saga is not yet finished. Obama now will negotiate in some fashion with Putin and Assad. The negotiations will produce neither good optics nor good options. In essence Obama either will have to accept a patently phony, easily ridiculed deal or be thrown back into the same seemingly no-win situation (from a political standpoint) that prompted him to grasp at the straw of negotiations.

The media, I assume, will not harp on Syria, but neither will they avert their eyes completely. And the late night comedians will continue to enjoy a target rich environment when it comes to Syria.

Is the Obama presidency “collapsing” — “dissolv[ing] before our eyes” — as Pete Wehner argues? I’m not prepared to say that.

But Obama’s credibility seems to be eroding, at last, in the public’s mind. And may finally be starting to look small, and even a bit ridiculous, to many who have never viewed him that way.


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