One year after he abandoned a bid for congressional approval of Syrian airstrikes, President Obama saved himself from another rebuke in an address to the nation Wednesday.
Instead, Obama told lawmakers he didn’t need their support to extend airstrikes from Iraq to Syria, showcasing a major shift for a commander in chief that once argued such actions must include authorization from Capitol Hill.
“My administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria],” Obama insisted in a rare prime-time address.
The president said he would “welcome” support for his efforts but in no way was asking for a permission slip from lawmakers who balked at his previous call to conduct a military strike against the regime of strongman Bashar Assad.
It was a striking difference from 2013, when the president had no interest in taking on a campaign of Syrian airstrikes by himself.
“Even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress,” Obama explained last year.
“This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force,” he added.
While lawmakers could authorize the arming and training of Syrian opposition forces, Obama will continue airstrikes in Iraq and start them in Syria regardless of whether Congress specifically endorses such an action. It is unlikely that lawmakers would unite behind military strikes ahead of competitive elections in November.
A senior administration official, previewing the speech to reporters, claimed that a post-Sept. 11 authorization of force against al Qaeda gave Obama the authority to conduct airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Some Democrats adamantly disagree with that legal interpretation, however.
White House officials said that because Obama is pursuing airstrikes against the Islamic State and not the Assad regime, he is not bound by the same obligations this time around.
But others warned that the president was laying the foundation for an open-ended commitment without congressional oversight, the very development he warned against just a year ago.
“Congressional force authorizations should be limited to situations that truly require war, not a free pass to use the full wartime power of our military wherever there is any potential terrorist threat around the world,” said Heather Hurlburt, a senior fellow in national security at the nonprofit Human Rights First.
“Obama can’t indefinitely continue a bombing campaign using his inherent authorities,” she added. “The White House now needs to work with Congress to ensure any force authorization from Congress is narrowly tailored to [the Islamic State].”
But for a president repeatedly burned by an uncooperative Congress, philosophical shifts were less concerning than showcasing a concrete plan to combat the Islamic State.
“How long do you think it would take Congress to unite behind [airstrikes]?” asked a former senior administration official. "If the president waited around for lawmakers, it would be ‘Why is he dragging his feet?’ This was the right thing to do, and I think even most Republicans acknowledge that.”