President Obama’s determination to persuade the public and Congress to support a historic nuclear agreement with Iran may soon run headlong against a proven political adversary: August.
Obama’s White House has seen major initiatives falter in the heat of August before, starting in his first year in office with the push to reform the nation’s healthcare system. The effort was the object of fierce protests by a nascent tea party movement that ultimately cost Democrats the majority in the House.
At issue this year is cementing in place the Iran deal, what could prove to be Obama’s crowning foreign-policy achievement. Lawmakers have a say over whether to approve or reject it, potentially limiting the president’s ability to waive sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Obama and progressive allies are turning to a campaign-like footing to try to line up lawmakers and everyday voters alike behind the nuclear accord, framing it as the best chance to avoid a new Mideast war.
“We’re essentially treating this as a five-alarm fire,” said Ben Wikler of the liberal group MoveOn. “We want to make certain that every member of Congress knows that this is a vote they’ll have to live with the rest of their political careers.”
On the other side, critics of the nuclear agreement, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Republican Jewish Committee, have committed to spending $40 million on advertising primarily targeting the Democrats who could be key to whether Congress can overcome a threatened presidential veto on a vote disapproving the deal in September.
The ads will air in key districts where lawmakers will meet with constituents in town hall-style settings in coming weeks. With August’s almost-predictable ebb in major news, congressmen scattered and Democratic leaders limited in their ability to unite them, the odds increase that one testy exchange with a voter can garner the kind of attention that changes the debate with weeks left before the vote.
“I wish it were now,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said of the vote, though she insisted that she was confident that the accord would survive its congressional test.
Obama has been lobbying wary congressional Democrats since the comprehensive agreement between Iran and world powers was reached in Vienna in July. Obama hosted a reception for House Democrats at the White House on Wednesday to continue pressing his case; Vice President Joe Biden convened a smaller group for breakfast Thursday at his official residence.
The president and his allies believe that the initial reception among potentially swing Democratic votes has been positive. But in a conference call with thousands of supporters Thursday night, Obama warned that the campaign against the deal “is fierce, it is well-financed, it is relentless.”
“There are 20 million ads up right now in districts to put pressure on members of Congress,” he said. “They’re feeling it. I’m meeting these members of Congress. And they don’t really buy the arguments of the opponents. But I can tell when they start getting squishy.”
To that end, he warned, neither presidential cajoling nor his bully pulpit would be enough. He called on supporters to reach out to their lawmakers to help combat the ad campaign being mounted by the opponents of the accord. He warned that they are the same people who helped lead the U.S. into the Iraq war, a favored part of his push on the Iran agreement.
“In the absence of your voices, you are going to see the same array of forces that got us into the Iraq war leading to a situation in which we forgo a historic opportunity and we are back on the path to potential military conflict,” he said.
Both sides are focused on the Senate, where Republicans would need supermajorities both to overcome an initial procedural hurdle to adopt a resolution of disapproval, and to override a presidential veto. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, estimated that 20 Democratic senators’ votes might be in play, with 13 needed to override a veto.
“There’s not a lot of wiggle room,” he said.
Obama-allied groups plan to advertise as well. J Street, the liberal Jewish organization, will spend $5 million, but it’s still a much smaller cash outlay than their opponents’, the group concedes. So proponents of the accord are working to rally their supporters through other means to ensure that members of Congress are hearing both sides.
“I do expect members to get loaded questions at town halls and other venues as they tour their states and districts in August,” said Dylan Williams, vice president of government relations for J Street. “Proponents of the deal have learned their lessons from the healthcare debate and understand that it’s necessary to ensure that the majority of Americans who support this deal also have their voices heard.”
A CNN/ORC poll released this week found that 52% of respondents want Congress to reject the deal, while 44% thought they should approve. But supporters of the agreement say that the more voters learn of the deal, the more likely they are to back it.
The urgency of their effort has united an array of progressive groups that just recently were battling with the White House over a major Pacific Rim trade deal.
“This is a moment when the grass roots and the president of the United States see eye to eye,” Wikler said. “There just haven’t been as many crystal-clear, war-or-diplomacy moments. But this is one of them.”
Brooks called the left’s framing of the issue as a choice between war and peace a “false construct … designed to scare people into accepting this deal.”
He said that while AIPAC and other groups blitz the airwaves, his organization will also encourage activists to attend town halls and pressure lawmakers to complement the ad campaign of several groups.
Before his expected August vacation, the president will continue to make a vigorous public case on the merits of the deal, the White House said.
He will deliver a major speech Wednesday at Washington’s American University.
Obama will also conduct an interview with Mic.com that will include questions submitted by young people in America and the Middle East. It’s part of the grass-roots approach, which the White House said has been successful.
The fact that Obama won the election in 2008 and was reelected in 2012, “despite the opposition spending hundreds of millions of dollars against him, is an indication that this is a strategy that’s pretty worked well,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
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