Here's one major reason the Syria debate is so dispiriting: We've got a president few appear able to trust. Nobody in this, the fifth year of the Obama era, can assume Barack Obama necessarily means a word he says.
He may; he may not. We just can't tell any more. Not after five years of maneuvers and speeches whose chief inspiration seems to be the accruing of personal credit and the shifting of blame to those who resist his magisterial gifts.
The president has become, in material ways -- as when he asks for difficult or dangerous things -- his own worst enemy.
That's the central problem as Obama works to enlist Congress' support for intervention of some sort or other in the Syrian civil war. What does he really want? What will he do if he receives some approximation of his wish? Is the idea to make America more respected and feared abroad, while relieving the plight of Syria's people? Or is it to look busy while silencing critics?
A strong national leader at such a moment as this isn't supposed to leave the world, not to mention his own country, in doubt for a millisecond. Doubt, when sufficiently widespread, undermines whatever enterprise is at hand. Observers cease to believe -- to the extent they believed in the first place. They scan the room for quick exits, eyeing the leader to see whether he beats them there.
A preliminary assessment of Obama's leadership skills came Tuesday in the form of polls. Forty-eight percent of respondents to a Pew Research poll said Obama hadn't adequately explained the rationale for attacking Syria; just 32 percent thought he had. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed nearly six in 10 Americans opposed to the projected attack -- without knowing exactly what the president has in mind.
One reason for skepticism could be that the president himself seems not to know what he has in mind. On Monday, he upped his game, suggesting to John McCain and Lindsay Graham that he might do more than just fire a warning shot across Syria's bow, as he had previously suggested. He might actually seek to "degrade" Syria chemical warfare capacity. The two senators said that, while inclined to go along with the attack, they wanted to know more. Wouldn't everybody, after two years of U.S. inattention to a problem the president currently represents as urgent?
It isn't a case of the president's playing his cards close to the vest. He seems genuinely to lack any sense of what it would be advantageous to do with respect to Syria -- other than make a speech. That would at least be true to form. With Obama, language is a substitute for thought.
Whoever first told young Barack he was eloquent did the child a disservice. The president -- who actually speaks no better than most other politicians but happens to have a nice baritone -- gives little evidence of ever having thought through a tough political problem. He's far better at generalizing about the malign intentions of Republicans than he is of setting a course and sticking to it, which is of course one reason Republicans mistrust him: He badmouths them.
Another reason is that he doesn't welcome imputations concerning his responsibility for problems. Problems are someone else's fault, never his creation. He reached out a hand -- tried to strike a "grand bargain," he says, on federal spending, only to see Republicans leave the table. No one on the Republican side ever meets him halfway. They all want him to fail. So much for their devotion to the national weal.
In politics, as in life (which isn't the same as politics, thank the Lord), you get by with some of this stuff for just so long. At which point people, sick of the sweet syrup, clamor to know what you really think, what you really want and why you want it.
For Barack Obama, spinner of sweet fantasies about himself and sour ones about those unenlightened enough to disagree with him, show time is here.