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First Thoughts: Obama's tough challenge ahead

Obama’s tough challenge ahead… He has 96 hours to turn things around on Capitol Hill… What happens to the president if the authorization goes down to defeat -- Obama will have a full-fledged political crisis on his hands… Today’s Senate activity: Reid briefly convenes the Senate to put authorization on the calendar… August job numbers: 169,000 jobs added, unemployment rate drops to 7.3%... And White House Chief of Staff McDonough to appear on “Meet the Press.”

President Obama responds to NBC News' Chuck Todd's question about whether or not he asked for an expanded list of targets in Syria, saying, "That report is inaccurate ... what we have consistently talked about is something limited and proportionate that would degrade Assad's capabilities."

*** Obama’s tough challenge ahead: What started out as the Obama White House’s promising start to win Capitol Hill support for military strikes in Syria (getting congressional leaders like John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi on board, as well as the pro-Israel group AIPAC) has hit a brick wall of opposition. An unusual alliance of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans has come out against intervention; the polls show that the public is deeply skeptical about military action; and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who voted for authorization out of committee, faced tough questions at an Arizona town hall yesterday. What’s more, President Obama went into the G-20 without additional support for intervention, and he leaves the G-20 without additional support. This all sets up a situation in which the Obama administration and its allies have 96 hours to change the momentum if they’re going to get Congress to pass an authorization approving limited action in Syria. Does Obama address the nation next week to better sell this to the public and their representatives? (Only way he doesn’t is if the White House abruptly decides Congress is a lost cause.) Does his challenge get easier -- or harder -- when most members actually return to Washington next week? (The White House hopes it gets easier.) Does the administration start making the argument to its members what might happen in the budget/debt-ceiling fights if the authorization goes down to defeat? (This is a semi-desperation move behind the scenes, but they may have no choice). We’ll find out. But right now, the administration is losing.

President Obama says a majority of the G20 leaders believe Bashar al-Assad launched chemical weapons, but are divided on whether to use force in Syria without UN Security Council support.

*** What happens to Obama if this goes down: If the Obama administration loses, many might not realize the full-fledged political crisis the president will face. His congressional opposition will be more emboldened, if that was possible. (Any advantage the Democrats hold in the upcoming fiscal fights ahead could quickly disappear.) A year before the 2014 midterms, Democrats will start hitting the panic button with a wounded Democratic president in office. (If you’ve paid attention to politics over the past two decades, when the going gets tough, Democrats often jump ship.) And any lame-duck status for Obama would be expedited. (After all, a “no” vote by Congress would rebuke the nation’s commander-in-chief.) Up until now, the first nine months of Obama’s second term have been, well, a disappointment. Gun control was stopped in the Senate; immigration reform is stalled in the House; no progress has been achieved in the budget talks. So if you throw in Congress rebuking the president from taking military action in Syria -- something he has said is necessary -- that would be a huge political blow to Obama’s political standing.

*** 96 hours to turn this thing around: Despite the administration’s obvious challenge ahead, take all the whip counts with a grain of salt -- at least right now. There are too many undecided members, and remember that those “leaning” a particular way can change their minds. There is still time for Obama and his allies to turn this thing around. But here’s something to consider: If it looks like a congressional authorization would go down to defeat, it might not reach the House floor. Why would members want to cast a vote on something that isn’t going to pass? Interestingly, the problem the president faced at the G-20 is similar to the one he faces in Congress. Even with the folks who agree that Syria’s regime needs to be punished, there just isn’t the POLITICAL WILL to go out on that limb. Germany is no more there than member of Congress representing Staten Island. Call it Iraq War syndrome or whatever you want, but that’s what’s missing -- political will. Finally, the president has one additional challenge: convincing potential supporters of action that his middle ground approach (strikes without trying to alter the civil war) just doesn’t come across as feasible. In hindsight, would the president’s call for action be more credible if he had a clearer objective in mind (like Assad’s removal or securing/capturing his chemical weapons stockpile)? Obviously, the military challenge to achieving those goals would be costly, but it seems the middle-ground military approach has become a tough sell.

*** The Senate’s upcoming activity: All of that said, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid briefly convenes the Senate to file the Syria resolution in order to put it on the Senate calendar, NBC’s Kasie Hunt and Frank Thorp report. On Monday, Reid likely will file cloture on the motion to start debating Syria, which sets up votes later in the week. And as early as Wednesday, the Senate could hold a cloture vote (needing 60 votes for approval) to begin formally considering the Syria resolution. 

*** 169,000 jobs added in August; unemployment rate drops to 7.3%: The AP with the breaking news: U.S. employers added 169,000 jobs in August, while the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3%. But the numbers aren’t as positive when you go inside of them, the AP adds. The unemployment rate “fell because more Americans stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed. The proportion of Americans working or looking for work fell to its lowest level in 35 years.” What’s more, “July's job gains were just 104,000, the fewest in more than a year and down from the previous estimate of 162,000.”

*** On “Meet” this Sunday: NBC’s David Gregory will interview White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on “Meet the Press” this Sunday.

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