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Obama engulfed in one fine mess
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This is an unusual American civic moment: All of Washington is under pressure, and all the pressure points in American politics are engaged.
There is the president, Barack Obama, pushing for an aggressive attack on terrorism -- even as an important poll showed the public doesn't approve of his policies against terrorism.
There is the House of Representatives supporting the president's proposal for an offensive against the Islamic State -- but the vote indicated more of his Republican rivals backed the measure than did his Democratic allies.
There is a respected general, a man routinely described as the president's top military adviser, who cautioned that ground operations may be needed against the Islamic State -- in the same week the president himself promised that they won't.
There is the spectacle, longed for by the American people, of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi of California, joining together to put a bipartisan ribbon on a significant measure -- though the two lawmakers who supported this month's effort to train and arm the opponents of the Islamic State are the faces of especially rancorous midterm congressional elections, now only five weeks away.
There was a round of air strikes in Syrian territory to confront at least two lawless terrorist groups -- at the same time diplomats at the United Nations were contemplating whether such an attack is lawful, and whether it might itself constitute an act of aggression. Separately, Syria and Russia were questioning the legality of the strikes.
There is the president who is often accused, even by his closest Washington allies, of being maddeningly disengaged -- but in the fight against the Islamic State, specific air strikes in Syria require his specific assent.
There is the chief executive who has repeatedly blamed his predecessor for getting the nation into unwise military engagements abroad -- but who rests part of his war powers authority on legislation George W. Bush got passed a decade ago and that Obama opposed.
Mr. Obama made his "will-not-commit-you" comments the day before a New York Times/CBS News Poll showed that only 39 percent of Americans favored sending ground troops into Iraq or Syria. It is a coincidence -- though perhaps a telling one -- that the rate of Americans who approve of the way the president is handling the situation with Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is precisely the same number: 39 percent.
Whether this military effort will quiet the threat from the Islamic State is unknown, though the president insists it will. But whether this unusual moment of bipartisanship and presidential initiative will quiet the American public is no mystery at all. It won't.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (