Belligerence is in the air in Washington. President Trump is enjoying (extremely rare) bipartisan praise for a cruise-missile attack on Syria. There's tough talk from some Republicans about more. And even tougher talk about Russia. North Korea, too.
Meanwhile, the public's reaction is…huh? For millions of American voters, the two most striking aspects of the U.S. action against Syria were 1) How quickly Trump moved, and 2) How little he explained his actions.
Explaining — laying the groundwork, making a case — is an essential part of presidential leadership. That's especially true when what is involved is an act of war. Leaders contemplating military action prepare the public to support that action. They explain why it is needed. They explain why it is in the national interest of the United States. Then they repeat the explanation.
No, that doesn't mean they reveal exactly what they're going to do and when they're going to do it. Trump said many times on the campaign trail that he would not telegraph his actions to foreign adversaries. To do so, he said, would be to give up the critical element of surprise.
But leaders don't surprise the voters with an out-of-the-blue act of war. In the case of Syria, Trump moved so quickly, and with such little effort at public persuasion beforehand, that he maintained the element of surprise on his own voters. That's not a good idea.
Indeed, the public reaction, measured by early polls, is not optimistic for the president. After the attack, Washington Post pollsters asked, "Do you support or oppose President Trump's decision to launch a missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the Syrian government using chemical weapons against civilians?" The result was 51 percent support, 40 percent oppose. Among registered voters, Trump's support level was a bit higher at 57 percent.
Then the Post asked, "Would you support or oppose additional U.S. air strikes against the Syrian government at this time?" Just 35 percent said support, while 54 percent said oppose. Again, Trump's support was a little better, 39 percent, among registered voters.
Either way, the fact is, the barest of majorities supports a new president sending military forces into action for the first time as commander-in-chief.
"They are not good numbers," says Republican pollster David Winston. Winston points out that it is often hard to assess Trump's poll results because he won the presidency with an unfavorable rating of 60 percent — that alone should tell everyone that Trump is a different kind of president, as far as polling is concerned. Nevertheless, it's possible to conclude that support for more military action appears tenuous at best — unless Trump makes the effort to build public support. "He needs to realize that there is a level of explanation that he needs to do, particularly when you're about to put American lives potentially at risk, given that starting point of 60 percent unfavorable," Winston says. "It's not that people are going to disagree with him, but when they hear something he has done, 60 percent of the country starts off with the viewpoint of, 'That guy I don't like.'"
Trump's no-explanations style is particularly bad for his political fortunes because, beyond what he promised would be a quick, intense, and winning effort to destroy ISIS, he did not campaign on the idea of going to war. Just the opposite; Trump campaigned day after day on a platform of keeping the United States out of the mess in the Middle East. Trump often excoriated George W. Bush for the "big, fat mistake" of going to war in Iraq.
Now, Trump's quick conversion to military action has left some prominent supporters unhappy — and warning of problems to come.
"The thing that's most important right now for Donald Trump is to remember those core issues that he so successfully campaigned on," conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said on Fox News Tuesday morning. "It was all focused on America first. Jobs, the economy, wages going up — that's it."
"What I think is difficult at the same time is to manage this war footing that we increasingly seem to be on," Ingraham continued. "I do have my concerns about this administration getting mired again in another conflict in the Middle East…I'm not sure getting rid of Bashar al-Assad was at the top of the list of the people in Pennsylvania."
At the same time, Trump is winning plaudits of those in his party who tried hardest to defeat him. Bill Kristol called the White House execution of the attack "impressive" and welcomed Trump as a potential convert to regime change. "It would be ironic if Trump, who campaigned against regime change, ends up pursuing it in both Syria and North Korea," Kristol tweeted Tuesday. The day after the attack, Kristol tweeted, "Punishing Assad for use of chemical weapons is good. Regime change in Iran is the prize."
No, that is probably not what Trump voters in Pennsylvania had in mind. If Trump has changed his views from what he said in the campaign, or even if he has simply decided that Syria should be a one-time exception to his general opposition to military interventionism, he owes voters all around the country more of an explanation than he has given so far.