Raids Project Presidential Power Amid Shutdown's Gridlock

President Obama arrives to speak about the government shutdown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Response Coordination Center on Monday. i i

President Obama arrives to speak about the government shutdown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Response Coordination Center on Monday. Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama arrives to speak about the government shutdown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Response Coordination Center on Monday.

President Obama arrives to speak about the government shutdown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Response Coordination Center on Monday.

Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

The American system of government was built on gridlock. Yet even by that standard, this past week has demonstrated new levels of immobility.

So the special forces operations carried out in Libya and Somalia over the weekend were a bracing change. President Obama decided to do something — and it happened.

"This is an area where the president is the decision-maker," says Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House. "He's the one who ultimately has to direct our foreign policy, including our counterterrorism efforts."

Being the decision-maker must be refreshing for Obama after a year of aborted missions at home. His immigration bill and his gun control law both failed in Congress. The shutdown has incapacitated much of the federal government. His approval rating is at its lowest level in years.

And internationally, things have been frustrating, too.

"The president's international standing has been diminished enormously," says Rich Williamson, who held several national security positions in Republican administrations, "particularly because of the kerfuffle, the confusion [and] the contradictions in his Syrian policy throughout September."

Then, as October dawned, the White House canceled the president's trip to Asia this week, leaving Secretary of State John Kerry to attend important trade summits in Obama's place.

"When you have two major meetings, as are occurring this week, and the president can't show up because of the domestic problems here at home, that has an impact," says Ivo Daalder, who leads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and was ambassador to NATO during Obama's first term.

American allies and adversaries may start to wonder if the president and the United States are weak — frozen in place.

With that backdrop, the raids in Libya and Somalia start to look like an important boost for Obama, Daalder says.

"It was good to be able to show that not everything has come to a screeching halt," he says. "But it would be far greater and far preferable if we could demonstrate the broad range of our power."

In another change from the norm, these weekend raids received praise from people in both parties.

House Speaker John Boehner told ABC on Sunday: "I'm very confident that both of these efforts were successful. I'm going to congratulate all of those in the U.S. intelligence operations, our troops, FBI — all those who were involved."

There is, however, a twist to this story.

Obama has a lot of power to carry out counterterrorism missions as he sees fit. Yet in these operations in Libya and Somalia, he held back some of that power.

Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, notes that Obama didn't just order unmanned drones to strike the targets.

"I think it demonstrates that our counterterrorism policy is not simply one dominated by drones, but there's also other elements to it," he says.

And what's more, Obama wants Congress to take back some of his broad counterterrorism power.

The power comes mostly from one law, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which lets the president go after terrorists anywhere in the world without congressional approval.

In a speech last spring, Obama said he wants to work with Congress to refine, and ultimately repeal, that law. Back then, he was more optimistic about his chances of working with Congress on anything.

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