Obama’s Choice: ‘Right Thing… When the Public Isn’t With You’

U.S. President Barack Obama exits Marine One on June 17, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photograph by Drew Angerer-Pool/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama exits Marine One on June 17, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Updated at 2 pm and 5 pm EDT

Mid-afternoon at the White House, President Barack Obama sat down with the leaders of both parties of the House and Senate.

This sort of parley seldom takes place in the Obama White House, and most recently it has tended to involve faltering attempts to steer a path through the fiscal crises that loom when debt limits are debated.

Yet this had the makings of a military summit, as the White House explained its limited options in the face of the worsening security crisis in Iraq, where the U.S. spent almost a decade and $1 trillion — and lost more than 4,000 American troops in the combat — shoring up a tenuous post-Saddam Hussein government after leading the invasion that toppled the leader.  Going into the talk, Republicans were calling on Obama to save the government of Nouri al-Maliki from the Sunni insurgents who have overrun the northern part of the country. At this point, U.S. action has been limited to dispatching as many as 275 Marines to secure the safety of the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The summit arrived as American confidence in the president’s leadership is waning. A new poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal today shows public approval of the job Obama is performing has slid to 41 percent, matching a previous low point in this survey.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed say Obama can no longer lead.

Approval of the president’s handling of foreign affairs has dipped to 37 percent, a new low in the NBC/Journal surveys. The survey of 1,000 conducted June 11-15 also includes a show of dissatisfaction with the conflicts in which the U.S. has engaged since 2001. As the U.S. prepares to disengage from war in Afghanistan, almost two-thirds of those surveyed, 65 percent, say the war  wasn’t worth it.

That was a war fought in response to the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The president who responded to those attacks with an invasion of Afghanistan, George W. Bush, saw his public approval ratings reach a pinnacle over 90 percent in the weeks following 9/11. And he had the support of both parties of Congress both for the action in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some Republicans are blaming the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate a post-war presence for U.S. forces in Iraq for the unraveling of security there. In advance of today’s leadership summit, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. shouldn’t be blamed for the defeat of Iraqi forces by Islamic militants in parts of the war-torn country.

“It wasn’t the United States that lost anything,” Hagel told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. “I don’t think we should assign the blame to the United States for this.”

The blame lies with the Iraqi government for failing to unify the country, Hagel said, maintaining he was surprised to see that some Iraqi forces “just threw down their weapons” as Islamic militants seized territory in areas north of Baghdad.

Today, public support for such American engagements has diminished.

Today, the president sat with Republicans calling for a renewed engagement to save Baghdad from a coup that threatens to establish a militant regime of ruthless religious radicals across Iraq and Syria.

It was unlikely that leaders would emerge from the afternoon session at the White House with a clear picture of where the administration is headed in the newest foreign crisis. Indeed, they learned from the president what his press secretary was publicly hinting at with reporters today.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t say whether the president would seek congressional authority for any air-strike in Iraq. When the president was proposing a strike against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons, Carney said, the difference was the target: The regime of President Bashar al-Assad. This time, it would be insurgents threatening the regime of Iraq’s Maliki. The point was driven home in the president’s meeting with leaders: No consent needed.

Yet, as the Iraqi government seeks air-support from the U.S., Carney maintained in his own final press briefing today that Obama will make a decision based on “our” national security interests — as opposed to Maliki’s.

The press secretary issued a read-out of the meeting as “An update on the Administration’s efforts to respond to the threat from ISIL by urging Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian agendas and to come together with a sense of national unity.” Obama “also reviewed our efforts to strengthen the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to confront the threat from ISIL, including options for increased security assistance. He asked each of the leaders for their view of the current situation and pledged to continue consulting closely with Congress going forward.”

Whatever the course of action, some say this is no time for poll-testing.

“Real leadership is doing the right best thing for the country even when the public isn’t with you — trying to win you over and suffering the consequences if you didn’t, but still doing the right thing,” Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today. “And we have have not done that.”

— David Lerman and Margaret Talev contributed to this report.

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