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Obama's media blitz: Mission impossible?

By David Gergen CNN Senior Political Analyst | 9/9/2013, 8:57 a.m.
Even though he sailed to the White House on the wings of his soaring rhetoric, President Barack Obama could find ...
President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference during the G20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday, September 6, 2013. (POOL Photo).

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter. Dan Katz, his research assistant, is a graduate of Brandeis University.

Even though he sailed to the White House on the wings of his soaring rhetoric, President Barack Obama could find that he is on mission impossible as he launches his media blitz on Syria this week -- six television interviews on Monday and a dramatic prime time address on Tuesday. Perhaps he will persuade a skeptical public, but it is surely the toughest speaking assignment of his presidency.

Surprisingly, he is now tripling down on his Syrian bet.

First he drew the red line, uncertain whether President Bashar al-Assad would call his bluff. Then he doubled down by insisting on a vote from an unreliable Congress. Now he is placing almost all his chips on the table by betting on his capacity to turn around public opinion.

If he wins over the public, he will likely win Congress, too, but if he fails, he will have turned a problem in Syria into a crisis in his presidency. (Someday, in their memoirs, will White House insiders please tell us what they were thinking?)

There are at least two major hurdles in his path as he seeks to persuade the public. First, he will be trying to change opinion that has already started to harden against him. Second, the bully pulpit may not be as powerful as often imagined.

The intensity factor

It's hard to remember a public terrain as rough as this one for a president in the past few decades. Weary of war and wary of another, Americans are in no mood to rally behind this call to arms -- many don't see it as our fight, they worry that it will drag us in deeper and even some of his most ardent supporters think the president and his team don't have a firm grip on the wheel.

A Gallup poll late this past week found that a majority of the public (51% to 36%) is opposed to a Syrian strike. That is the lowest level of support Gallup has found for any intervention in two decades. Moreover, the "intensity factor" runs much more strongly among opponents -- just look at the avalanche of their calls and e-mails to Capitol Hill.

The president has been arguing his case for nearly three weeks, and so far, he doesn't have many converts on the Hill. That's among Democrats as well as Republicans. CNN's whip count suggests that he could win a tight vote in the Senate (his speech may work best there), but a strike resolution is in serious trouble in the House. The Washington Post count shows that as many as a third of House Democrats may vote no.