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Analysis: Is Obama a winner or loser on Syria?

By Z. Byron Wolf, CNN
updated 6:57 AM EDT, Thu September 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Who is a better negotiating partner for Obama -- Congress or Putin?
  • The promise of a deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons was an accomplishment
  • Even a source in Obama administration described the situation as 'messy'
  • GOP ally on military strikes says Obama 'uncomfortable' in role of commander in chief

Washington (CNN) -- It might not really matter if President Barack Obama made his case on Syria to the American people. He didn't really ask them for anything in his televised address but to sit tight and watch the graphic videos of chemical weapons on YouTube as the surprise diplomatic track he's now chosen plays out.

The question now for Americans on Syria -- rather than whether the United States should launch military strikes after the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people -- is who they think is a better negotiating partner for Obama: Congress or Vladimir Putin?

"All eyes are on the Russian president -- President Putin," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Wednesday. "We all know that he was former head of the KGB. We all know about the KGB. He is president of that very big country and we are all so grateful that even though relations aren't perfect with Russia they are OK."

All eyes turn to U.S.-Russia talks

There probably aren't many people in Washington who would use "OK" to describe Obama's relationship with Congress.

Udall: Obama Syria plan still not clear
Sen. Corker slams Obama on Syria
Did Obama's threat cause Russia shift?

Whether getting on this diplomatic track was a good idea or not probably has a lot to do with how you view the president and his leadership style already.

It's a bit more complicated than a simple choice of who he'd rather negotiate with, but Obama essentially chose Putin.

A brief flirtation with Congress suggested lawmakers were more than willing to reject a president's request for the use of force for the first time in recent memory.

On the one hand, after going from an imminent strike to seeking congressional authorization to taking a diplomatic route, critics have described him as being about as indecisive as an American president can be.

On the other, the Russians and Syrians are at the negotiating table and Syria has promised to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. That's something he tangibly achieved without dropping bombs.

5 questions: Did Obama answer them?

How he got there was messy. That's the word his own staffer used.

"Messy is fine. Messy means progress," an administration official told CNN's John King as the diplomatic solution was presenting itself. Whether the solution actually pans out remains anyone's guess. But that's OK with most lawmakers, many of whom didn't really want to vote on Syria anyway.

Even an unsure diplomatic solution is better than a military one for war-weary members of Congress.

"We do have to keep in mind an imperfect application of the Russian proposal is better than anything we can accomplish through the (president's military plan)," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California, in a speech on the House floor on Wednesday.

History behind Obama's speech
What was Obama's message on Syria?
President Obama's full Syria speech

Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who favored giving the president authority to launch military strikes, told CNN's Dana Bash that the president is making it hard for Congress to work with him on just about anything.

"The president just seems to be very uncomfortable with being commander in chief of this nation," Corker said, although he added that he hopes the new diplomatic track pans out.

"He just can't follow through," said Corker, who was clearly frustrated that the president hadn't made a stronger argument to the nation that when an American president draws a red line, no country should be able to cross it without repercussions.

Obama will need senators like Corker to work with him now that Syria has been paused on Capitol Hill. Given Americans' continued focus on the economy, this president may be judged more for how he handles the looming two-headed fiscal dragon of government funding and debt ceiling authority.

Those issues will fester over the next two weeks until government funding runs out October 1 and the debt limit is reached as soon as October 18.

On those matters, he's not going to get any help from Putin. He must figure out how to work with Congress.

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