President Obama's handling of the crisis in Syria has reinforced the impression of critics that he is a poor negotiator, a perception that is spilling over into domestic issues, according to political strategists of both major parties. The strategists say that while Obama tries to avoid making rash judgments, he also seems to have difficulty making up his mind and often vacillates.
Adding to Obama's problems were the criticisms of his two former defense secretaries Tuesday night. Robert Gates and Leon Panetta told a forum in Dallas that Obama's Syria strategy is flawed, according to The Associated Press. Both said that the president shouldn't have asked Congress to approve a military strike against the current Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, and both were skeptical about trusting Russia in ongoing negotiations to have the Assad regime surrender its chemical weapons.
Obama, other critics say, sometimes goes too far with his rhetoric, as he did when he declared that using chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line" that would require retaliation by the United States. But after warning that such punishment was imminent in the aftermath of the alleged use of such weapons last month, Obama pulled back and asked Congress to first authorize military strikes.
Then he shifted again and in a speech from the White House, Obama announced a pause in his plan to intervene militarily in Syria because of a Russian initiative that would have Assad surrender his chemical weapons to an international organization, an initiative now being considered by Obama and the United Nations Security Council.
Obama advisers say the only reason for the initiative was because Obama threatened a military attack on Syria. But even Obama's allies admit that it's unclear whether the Russian initiative is genuine or simply a ploy by Russian President Vladimir Putin to throw the United States off balance and slow down Obama's military plans.
Obama's handling of the Syria crisis is being constantly second guessed. "He waited too long, hoping all this would go away," says a former national-security adviser to President George H.W. Bush.
"It didn't. Anyone who is experienced in international affairs knows you never give a time frame, never give numbers, because the press will hold you accountable. But President Obama is a neophyte in international affairs."
And giving an ultimatum without being willing to back it up forcefully and immediately is a serious mistake, he adds. "President Obama is a man who lives by the rhetorical word," the former Bush aide says. "He thinks if he says it, it happens. That's not the way the world works."
A senior Republican strategist says Obama's conduct has encouraged House Republicans to confront him on budget issues, such as the debt ceiling and future funding of his health care law. "What has been reinforced is that President Obama is not a strong leader," the GOP strategist told me. "There's no question that the Syria incident has made him much weaker."
But a prominent Democratic adviser with ties to senior party leaders and the White House said it would be wrong for the Republicans to assume that Obama won't drive a hard bargain on budget issues. "That's where his heart is," the adviser says.