In terms of the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama’s lawyers pushed him into a high-risk/low-reward equation. By stiff-arming Congress on the War Powers Act, the president gave his opponents a tremendous opportunity. Obama’s posture, as a political matter, has put him at risk to be the sole owner of any negative outcome in Libya without there being an equal reward for any positive result.
The electorate will judge Libya by one standard: Is the current situation better for American interests? While the future is unknowable, the answer is far more likely to be either no or unclear, than a triumphant yes.
Given the volatile nature of much of the Middle East, no matter what happens in Libya, it is difficult to imagine a situation that would enhance the president’s stature. Voters won’t distinguish Libya from the rest of the region. If the situation in the region is considered problematic for American interests — the historical norm — then the Libyan intervention is likely to be seen as either a failure or a question mark. Either view works to the Republicans’ advantage at election time.
This raises a fundamental political question: Why is the White House so willing to assume all the downside risk for what, on a game theory basis, calculates to a limited probable upside?
The fact that presidents since Harry Truman have rewritten the constitutional provision on how war is to be declared doesn’t provide an answer — it rather begs the question. As President George W. Bush showed, a chief executive can still seek Congressional approval, even while claiming — wrongly, we believe — that his constitutional power didn’t require it. This approach allowed the Texan to protect his view of the president’s authority while at the same time bringing Congress on board to help share the burdens of military conflict.
Obama’s posture toward Libyan legalism has largely let Republicans off the proverbial political hook. In fact, the president handed the opposition an opportunity to give him a huge rebuke from the floor of the House.
The average swing voter believes a bipartisan approach to Libya and similar conflicts is preferable. With Republicans insisting on following the War Powers Act — which in our view is still less than the Constitution requires — and the White House refusing, a legally suspect situation has become even worse as a political matter. An unnecessary legal strategy that risks voter anger makes no practical sense.
The GOP-led refusal to authorize the military action in Libya marks Republicans as the bipartisan, reasonable side of the argument. While the president is now on the defensive, his opponents can claim they are the true defenders of the Constitution.
We ask of the president’s strategy: For what purpose? Agreeing to abide by the War Powers Act doesn’t weaken the presidency, as Bush showed. It doesn’t set a precedent since it can always be distinguished in a future circumstance. It doesn’t limit the president’s options should the situation require an immediate response. In sum, the president has gained no advantage by his approach to Libya.