'Syria envy'? Activists divided on usefulness of an Obama PR blitz

Olivier Knox
Yahoo News
In this Sept. 10, 2013, photo, President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington. Some of Obama’s top allies say the president misread a few crucial political forces when he asked Congress to support his bid to strike Syria over last month’s chemical weapons attack. They say the chief one is the nation’s profound weariness with military entanglements in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

Do liberal activists have “Syria envy” yet?

President Barack Obama just waged an unprecedented three-week PR campaign to sell Americans and Congress on the need to go to war — six television interviews in one night, a prime-time speech to the nation, and White House outreach to 93 senators and 375 representatives.

It’s enough to make those on the left looking for his help on issues such as gun violence, climate change, racial profiling, immigration and jobs wonder whether their causes rate this kind of White House commitment. Is there an intensity gap?

“I raised this issue to the president the other day,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told Yahoo News in a telephone interview.

Sanders, who for years has been calling for Washington to get its act together and take steps to boost job creation, said he prodded Obama when the president made a rare trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to make his Syria case to senators.

“It’s one thing to give a speech which most people know really is not going to translate into terribly strong action,” Sanders said. “Intensity is the key issue. Is he prepared to fight?”

Sanders declined to describe the president’s response.

But a Democratic aide who does not work for Sanders said the exchange was a bit combative, with the senator asking, in effect, “Why the hell aren’t we talking about jobs?”

The director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, Laura Murphy, said that if she “could wave a magic wand,” she would conjure up a Syria-style presidential blitz to curb racial profiling in federal law enforcement.

“Of course it would create controversy — but Syria creates controversy,” she said.

“On racial profiling, he has intensity, even though it’s sporadic, but he doesn’t have the action to back it up,” Murphy said. “On Syria, he’s proposing arming the rebels, he’s getting the CIA involved. He’s doing things: He’s going to the United Nations Security Council, he’s laying out the case.”

What about overhauling America’s immigration policy? Should Obama go “full Syria”? Not so much, according to some activists, because it might only stiffen Republican opposition.

“I think these things have to be calibrated. I think if he went all-out Syria it would most likely backfire,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the America’s Voice advocacy that favors an overhaul. “Could he ratchet up the pressure in a strategic way? Yes. Should he? Yes.”

But “if he went on a barnstorming campaign across the country, it arguably would make it harder for Republicans to get to yes,” Sharry said.

“They've dug themselves into an anti-Obama position, and if he were to say the sky is blue, they would disagree,” agreed Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasury of the potent SEIU union and head of its immigration reform campaign.

So would activists turn down a six-television-interview campaign? “Of course not, all of that helps,” said Medina. “But I’m not sure that there is a lot of convincing that he can do."

For Natural Resources Defense Council communications director Ed Chen, Obama “has been great in terms of talking about climate issues” and “put a lot of time, public time, in promoting this issue.” So, would a Syria-style campaign help?

“No, because frankly on Syria the message has been mixed,” Chen said. “Every news cycle he’s had a different position. On climate he’s been straight and true.”

Obama, who faces a tough decision on the Keystone pipeline, has set new automobile fuel-efficiency standards, and new emissions rules for power plants.

“We just need him to press on and keep his foot on the gas pedal — so to speak. A hybrid of course,” Chen said.

The White House countered that Obama has been pushing these issues just as much as Syria — just over a longer time frame, stretching back years in some cases.

“What’s unique about the Syria situation, at least until a few days ago, is that we were operating under an unusually compressed time frame,” a senior Obama aide told Yahoo News on condition of anonymity to speak more candidly.

Obama campaigned for re-election on the need for jobs creation and gave an address to the nation on the issue in September 2011 — to a joint session of Congress, the aide underlined.

“Short of the national address, we have basically done all of that stuff on immigration reform,” the aide added. “Television interviews? We’ve done far more than six. We’ve had at least as many meetings — they’ve just been stretched over a longer period of time.”

On gun violence, the official observed wryly, “I’m not sure that another meeting at the White House is going to change the vote of someone in Congress who voted against 80 percent of the American people and against closing background-check loopholes.”

Still, the official said, Obama is “ready for all of these groups to make their case to the public.”