NBC's Lauer Hopes for Obama 'Escape Hatch' on Syria, So He Can 'Save Face Politically'

On Monday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd engaged in a strategy session over how President Obama could minimize any political damage from Congress voting down a strike on Syria. Lauer fretted: "Is there an escape hatch for the President? Is there a way for him to save face politically if this vote goes against him?" [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

Lauer's concern was prompted by Todd observing: "[The White House is] very concerned, Matt, because it's not just that they believe they need Congress on this and they want to punish Assad and all of the Syria policy, but they realize a loss like this could be politically crippling to him [Obama] all over Washington on all the different battles that he's got coming in the next six months."

On Sunday's Meet the Press, Todd argued that Democrats in Congress opposing military action in Syria were more "rational and principled" than Republicans voicing identical opposition.

Responding to Lauer, Todd suggested ways in which Obama could "save face" on the issue:

Well, there's a couple of ways. We've already heard John Kerry, you know, the ultimatum, right? That's another way of sort of buying time....if they know they're going to lose, a call to wait for the United Nations investigation to be complete, to have that full report come out. That's one way to delay....just finding a way to pass something in both houses, even if they don't match. They don't ever try to bring them together, but then they can say, "Well, we've got some support to do something."

Lauer then wondered how Obama would best be able to persuade the public: "Do you think the centerpiece of the President's comments will be, 'If we let Syria get away with it, watch out for Iran'?"

Sounding more like a White House operative than a journalist, Todd replied:

I do not think the Iran argument is going to be effective with the public. However, I think the Iran argument is effective politically on Capitol Hill. You can bring in Israel, "If you consider yourself a pro-Israel member of Congress, then you should vote for this."

I think the patriotism pitch, Matt, that we heard the other day from the President, "It is America's duty to do this whether we like it or not," that's what the public's gonna hear Tuesday night.

In a report just prior to the segment, White House correspondent Peter Alexander declared there was "new urgency" in Obama's push for military action, noting that he was "Facing one of the most crucial weeks of his presidency..."


Here is a full transcript of Lauer's September 9 exchange with Todd:

7:04AM ET

MATT LAUER: Chuck Todd is NBC's chief White House correspondent and political director. Chuck, good morning to you.

CHUCK TODD: Good morning, sir.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Making His Case; President Looks to Sway Congress, Public on Syria Plan]

LAUER: The President is going to be taking his case directly to the American public over the next couple of days, a series of interviews with the networks, a speech to the nation. He's going to be talking to members of Congress. How worried are they?

TODD: They're very worried. And they're treating – if you look at this public relations campaign that's gone on over the last 48 hours and what you're seeing in the next 48 hours. Just look at what they're doing today, they're rolling out Hillary Clinton to say something. She's coming to the White House for another event, but she's now going to talk about Syria because they're trying to lobby Democrats. You've got the President doing all these interviews today, then the speech to the nation tomorrow. You had Denis McDonough doing what he did yesterday and all of the Sunday talk shows.

They're very concerned, Matt, because it's not just that they believe they need Congress on this and they want to punish Assad and all of the Syria policy, but they realize a loss like this could be politically crippling to him all over Washington on all the different battles that he's got coming in the next six months.

LAUER: Well, as you say that, let me ask you this, if the numbers – and they're all over the place, but they seem to be leaning heavily against an air strike in Congress, in terms of the votes that are already lined up – is there an escape hatch for the President? Is there a way for him to save face politically if this vote goes against him?

TODD: Well, there's a couple of ways. We've already heard John Kerry, you know, the ultimatum, right? That's another way of sort of buying time. The French have already said – who are supposedly going to be with the United States if an attack happens – have said, "Hey, you know what? Let's delay a little bit any attack, let's wait for the United Nations." So if they know they're going to lose, a call to wait for the United Nations investigation to be complete, to have that full report come out. That's one way to delay.

The other option here, Matt, that I wouldn't be surprised, that I would – is just finding a way to pass something in both houses, even if they don't match. They don't ever try to bring them together, but then they can say, "Well, we've got some support to do something."

LAUER: But real quickly, this final push to change opinion in Congress and in the American public. Do you think the centerpiece of the President's comments will be, "If we let Syria get away with it, watch out for Iran"?

TODD: I do not think the Iran argument is going to be effective with the public. However, I think the Iran argument is effective politically on Capitol Hill. You can bring in Israel, "If you consider yourself a pro-Israel member of Congress, then you should vote for this."

I think the patriotism pitch, Matt, that we heard the other day from the President, "It is America's duty to do this whether we like it or not," that's what the public's gonna hear Tuesday night.

LAUER: Alright, Chuck Todd. Chuck, thanks as always.

TODD: You got it.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC