By Chris Cillizza August 5
During a lunchtime speech at American University, President Obama minced no words in his aggressive push for Congress -- and congressional Democrats, in particular -- to support the Iran deal his administration has struck.
"Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option: Another war in the Middle East," Obama said.
The framing of the vote in such stark, all-or-nothing terms is something of a departure for Obama and reflects just how high the stakes are for him to get this deal passed.
Obama was elected in 2008 as, in many ways, the grey-area president. Following George W. Bush, who was roundly disliked by Democrats and many independents for his tendency to see every issue in absolute good-vs.-evil terms, Obama portrayed himself as someone who understood the nuance behind the ongoing policy debates in the country. He cast his own life story, as the product of a white American mother and a black African father who had lived between two cultures his entire life, as evidence that he understood the complicated nature of the world.
And, for much of his first few years in office, Obama governed in that grey -- prodding politely rather than shaming publicly to get what he wanted. But, seven years in Washington appears to have beaten that sense of nuance out of this president with the aggressive and damn-near cajoling tone of today's Iran speech.
Knowing that Israel's skepticism about the Iran deal is a sticking point for many undecided members of his party, Obama laid out an extended rebuttal of the idea that Israeli opposition should be regarded as a deal killer.
"When the Israeli government is opposed to something, people in the United States take notice; and they should," Obama acknowledged, before adding: "The fact is, partly due to American military and intelligence assistance, which my administration has provided at unprecedented levels, Israel can defend itself against any conventional danger, whether from Iran directly or from its proxies."
Obama also sought to paint the issue along partisan lines, dismissing Republican opposition to the deal as simply the carping of partisans unable to see the big picture. And, he used startling images to makes that case; "It's those hardliners chanting 'Death to America' who have been most opposed to the deal," he said." They're making common cause with the Republican Caucus."
(It's worth noting at this point that only seven Democratic senators -- including three who announced their support yesterday -- are on the record in support of the deal. And the speech comes as public support for the once-popular deal continues to drop. So it's not as though Democrats are rushing to support Obama at the moment.)
The change in tone from Obama is also reflective of how badly he needs/wants this deal as the centerpiece of his foreign policy legacy. Disappointment in Russia and his decision to re-engage in Iraq left him without a crowning jewel on his foreign policy resume. Obama quite clearly sees this as his jewel; "This is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated," he insisted Wednesday.
While you can debate the magnitude of the deal, what is certain is that the coming congressional vote will function as a referendum for Obama's ability to work with Congress -- and, more critically, members of his own party. Obama, elected in 2008 largely without the party graybeards' support, seemed largely dismissive of Congress during his first term, even as the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate handed him victories on the economic stimulus package and the health-care law.
But, as Obama's popularity waned, so do did any goodwill he had with congressional Democrats, who repeatedly complained -- privately and publicly -- about his alleged disengagement with their role in the political process. The 2014 election was a run-as-far-from-Obama-as-you-can one for many endangered Democrats, many of whom still lay their defeats at Obama's feet for the policies he pushed.
And now Obama needs Democrats in Congress. Badly.
With this speech, he appears to have made the calculation that the only way to get them over is to send this message loud and clear: "Vote for this. Or else."
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.