It’s the second term, stupid!

Why journalists shouldn't blame all of Obama's problems on Syria

The media love simple narratives based on dramatic events, so it’s no surprise that many journalists have suggested that President Obama’s fortunes hinge on Syria. In pursuing this line of reasoning, reporters have started to blame every second-term problem Obama faces on his failed effort to attract Congressional support for a military intervention. But while his efforts were not very popular and did temporarily displace other issues from the national agenda, it’s not clear that the episode fundamentally changed the president’s standing with Congress or the public.

Consider, for instance, the claim that the prospects of immigration reform or other aspects of his domestic policy agenda depend on Syria, which The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Slate’s Matthew Yglesias have correctly described as implausible. For instance, The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser and Noah Bierman offered this framing of the Syria debate on Monday:

Now the question is whether this marks a turning point in Obama’s presidency that does lasting harm to both his domestic agenda and his international goals, or whether a diplomatic victory could reinvigorate what was already an agenda in trouble. Either way, it is a moment that could define Obama’s second term and set the stage for what could be a bruising three years to come.

Similarly, Bloomberg’s Michael Tackett wrote the following on Sept. 9—just before the administration shifted to a diplomatic approach—under the headline, “Obama Shrinking Second-Term Hastened by Syria Opposition”:

If [Obama] loses the vote on Syria, the Republicans will be emboldened to challenge him on fiscal issues, immigration and on his nominee to be chairman of the Federal Reserve…

If Obama wins, his position on those issues, along with immigration, will be strengthened just as he also is starting enrollment for his health-care law.

Emboldened? Republicans already seemed pretty comfortable challenging Obama.

In reality, though Obama was headed to a likely defeat in Congress on Syria before pursuing a diplomatic solution, the prospects for his domestic policy agenda have not changed much since Tackett’s column appeared. For instance, the debate over Syria might have helped keep immigration reform off the Congressional agenda, but why would we believe, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson suggested, that its chances of passage were significantly affected? Whose votes would have changed if Syria hadn’t happened? Why? None of these analysts offer a convincing rationale.

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York is at least more specific in claiming that Syria contributed to growing Republican distrust of Obama—but as he acknowledges, it is only one among many factors (second-term presidents aren’t usually that popular with the opposition party!):

When GOP lawmakers see the president enforcing parts of Obamacare while ignoring others; when they see him acting unilaterally on issues (the environment is one example) that should be the business of Congress; when they see him threaten to go around lawmakers on questions as diverse as immigration and war in Syria — all those things make it harder for Republicans to vote for any measure that depends on the president to enforce it. Today, Republicans are even less inclined to go along with Obama than they were in June.

There are, of course, many signs of weakness from the White House. Obama’s approval rating isn’t very high, divided government has stymied his legislative agenda, his party is frustrated by him, and he often seems to be at the mercy of events, but these are the sorts of problems that presidents often face during second terms and not necessarily the result of Syria. (See: George W. Bush, 2005-2008.)

The underlying problem is the way that presidential coverage often depends on counterfactual claims that don’t stand up to careful scrutiny. (This is a common problem in journalism). The idea that Obama’s legislative agenda would have a significantly better chance of passage if Syria hadn’t happened is not much more plausible that the farcical notion that “American President”-style war rooms and arm-twisting would somehow win over the GOP. Ultimately, Obama’s political failures on Syria are far more a symptom of the weaknesses of his second-term presidency than a cause.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , , ,