Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, traditionally strong allies of President Obama, emerged from a Monday afternoon meeting at the White House with Obama largely unconvinced by his arguments for intervention in Syria and wary of contradicting their constituents, who CBC members say are almost uniformly against any kind of military action.
“I have to consider my constituents. Most constituents are opposed,” said Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) He added, while saying he remains undecided on his vote, “I helped to elect this president, I want him to be successful, but as I said before, I can disagree with him and still admire him and support him.”
Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said after the meeting, “everyone in the room wanted to say ‘we are with you,” but simply could not.”
“He was, as always, very eloquent, but I’m not sure he moved a lot of people,” Cleaver said. The congressman is leaning towards voting “no,” adding that in his district, “blacks, whites, Jews, gentiles, I’ve never seen people come together on an issue like this.” Everyone who talks to him, Cleaver said, is opposed to striking Syria.
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) told MSNBC’s Martin Bashir after the meeting that he too remained wary of intervention, arguing, “we should have more of a multilateral coalition of partners.”
The comments from the black caucus mirrored those of other members of Congress of both parties and illustrated the challenges the administration is having in getting authorization for a military strike passed in either the House or the Senate.
But unlike most members of Congress, the black caucus members heard the case for intervening in Syria straight from Obama. White House officials had scheduled a meeting with the black caucus and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, aware that the 43-member CBC is an important bloc of votes on an issue that has scrambled the traditional political coalitions on Capitol Hill. But Obama, as he often does, stopped into the session in the Roosevelt Room himself, staying for about an hour of the 90-minute meeting, which the majority of members of the CBC attended.
He was blunt with the members, telling them, “look, I understand the politics” and explaining he was aware of the public opposition to the military intervention in Syria and knew some of the members had already said they would vote “no.” At another point in the session, according to one of the CBC members, Obama said that he would not lie to the American people and suggest that if the U.S. did not act in Syria, it would somehow result in American cities being attacked. (The member interpreted this as Obama promising to avoid the kind of bellicose rhetoric that the Bush administration used in the warm-up to the Iraq War.)
After Obama left the the meeting, Rice took questions from the members and explained the administration’s strategy, although many of the CBC members had heard these details in other sessions they have attended over the last week.
What was most illustrative of the lack of support for Obama’s position was after the meeting ended. After attending sessions at the White House, officials often speak to reporters who assemble outside of the West Wing, near the White House press briefing room. Democrats in particular usually emerge to praise the president.
Not this time. The Congressional Black Caucus members left through an exit inaccessible to the press. Interviewed on Capitol Hill, several were tight-lipped about the session and reluctant to say how they would vote.
“I haven’t talked to one CBC member who didn’t say their people were against this,” said Cleaver. He added, “We are invested in Barack Obama, but are we elected to support Barack Obama or represent our districts?”