The same president who believes at every turn domestically he should be using Executive Orders to circumvent Congress wherever his social progressive interests are at stake, is the same president who conveniently welcomes debate on subjects too thorny to hold a position on. He's reverted to the latter form on Syria but only because it is convenient for him. The president has abdicated his responsibility on Syria by pushing the decision making process to Congress - this time around.
The political background
Let's face it, this president has no interest in foreign affairs, except where it can help him personally. While he started with a global apology tour in 2009, admonishing his own country for it's supposed geo-political hegemony it was clearly a self-serving effort. He may have actually believed that a global apology tour would serve to put foreign affairs on the back burner for his presidency. But it was also likely about appearing to be everything he claimed to be. That makes connective sense in light of his unwarranted peace prize and his objective to draw America back into a more isolationist style role while he centered his focus on a domestic agenda. The approach to foreign affairs made sense for him. Obama was going to be a domestic agenda president and foreign affairs were unwelcome hurdles.
No president however is able to operate as if the United States were in a vacuum as much as they might wish that to be the case. Lord knows the president tried to operate along those lines at first. During the Green Revolution in Iran in mid 2009 through early 2010, Obama did nothing to support an uprising against an oppressive regime and clear geopolitical adversary. Consequently the uprising was brutally suppressed and the opportunity to truly support freedom abroad was lost. Sure, the president condemned the actions of the Iranian regime...in as muted a tone as was possible.
Obama tried to make political lemonade out of the lemons of the Arab Spring. Demanding that Hosni Mubarak step down in Egypt was seemingly a no-brainer for president Obama. Mubarak was not a democratically elected official, and in their global naiveté, I'm sure the administration thought that the Arab Spring would lead to a series of democracies in the Middle East that they could take credit for enabling. What happened was a Muslim Brotherhood power grab in Egypt. That big OOPS was followed by a second uprising that Obama condemned as a coup. OOPS again.
Obama of course ignored most of the Arab uprisings but one that he could not seemingly ignore was Syria. They were led by a brutal lunatic and his equally thuggish sons. Leading from behind in deposing Khadafy seemed like a no brainer to score political points at home while ridding the world of a crazy despot. He could argue with the left that the U.S. was operating in a support role, while claiming on the right that he was not tolerant of despots and was doing something about it. It seemed a win-win for Obama. Of course it eventually led to the incident at Benghazi. OOPS.
In all three situations what seemed like no brainers to the administration, were in fact situations where no brains were actually applied to the problem. Obama is zero for three on Iran, Libya and Egypt. Yet he got to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden. The fact that seemed to escape much of the public was that he would inevitably be caught because of all of the foundational work done by the Bush administration and by several agencies for years before Obama was even elected. That was not a victory for Obama as much as it was him being in the right place at the right time. However he was certainly able to capitalize on it. And it bought him some undeserved foreign policy credibility with voters.
Meanwhile the president has a very robust set of domestic agenda goals. Health care, unions, green energy, domestic spending on 'shovel-ready' projects, expanding the role of government and a bi-annual pivot towards jobs and the economy as his top priority, were among some of his biggest agenda items. The lack of wisdom in these goals aside, they serve as his primary focus and anything foreign policy related is merely an impediment or a distraction from his primary agenda items. The president's team is ill prepared to deal with the various 3 a.m. calls because they really don't want to focus on them. That's why the foreign policy results have been so poor.
The same has been true on his domestic policies where they are not in his list of primary objectives. He has described abortion as above his pay grade. He had voted present in the Senate ad nauseum. Once he became president he waffled on the Keystone XL pipeline for years. In each of these cases and numerous others, the president has been careful to avoid committing to one side or the other for calculated political reasons - voter/public approval. He wants public support for issues that matter to him and on issues which do not, he does not want to alienate either side of the political divide for fear of losing supporters on issues that matter to him as a consequence.
You might argue that the president did make a splash by evolving his opinion on gay marriage. That too however was calculated. Firstly he would have gladly not have had the issue come to light. Had it not been for the big mouth of VP Joe Biden, he wouldn't have had to come down on one side or the other. African Americans in large numbers are quite socially conservative when it comes to homosexuality. However, the president did the calculus on his support and determined that the damage to his persona in the African American community (and likely Hispanic as well) by supporting gay marriage was much smaller than the upside among the broader liberal base for supporting gay marriage. So he 'evolved'. But again, this was all an unnecessary distraction for the president.
The politics of Syria, and the politics of politics
In that light, Syria too is a distraction for the president. What's worse for him (or Congress) is that it is a political no-win nightmare for whomever is held accountable for it. Syria's leader is a thug. Gassing one's own people is worse than a lot of dictators that the president has condemned (Mubarak for example) and visually in line with the actions of one Saddam Hussein. Not doing anything to hold Assad accountable for his actions seems like the president is weak and also is side-stepping doing the right thing. So he's got to do something or all of his talk of justice and the line in the sand becomes suspect.
On the other hand, his international coalition was dealt a serious blow when the British parliament voted not to intervene. And it had been dealt another blow at the U.N. Security Council when Russia and China kept the Council from taking any meaningful diplomatic action. Worse still in the president's eyes was the public's antipathy for any interference in Syria. The president cannot justify flying in the face of public opinion unless his primary agenda is at stake. Syria does not fit in that equation.
Syria represents another situation where the president would have preferred to do nothing. Except the newly appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that chemical weapons were definitely used. That combined with the president having drawn a line in the sand at the use of chemical weapons in Syria, made the president having to do something, unavoidable. The president, with Kerry's help, had painted himself into a corner.
Obama, considering himself a clever guy, went to the blame Bush playbook once again. This time it wasn't Bush, it was Congress and it was a proactive blaming. He was getting the focus of any potential blame off of him before anything even happened. If the president claimed that he had authority to act without Congress (as he had in Libya), but still wanted Congress to provide direction (so they can be blamed for any decision to act or any decision not to act), he probably figured he had successfully avoided a no-win situation and as a bonus, could get the pesky Republicans in Congress tarnished as well.
The likely fallout from his decision is hard to predict. The president may well have successfully shifted responsibility from himself to Congress on Syria. A political win though, is not what the country needs. The approach is an act of cowardice and cynicism. The president has yet to take a stand on anything that doesn't matter to him and his liberal agenda. That is not leadership, it is selfishness. The president does not get to choose which crisis the country faces - hurricanes and tyrants come about on their own. The president is responsible for tackling these issues whether he wants to do so or not. The captain of a ship does not abandon the rudder when the waters get choppy - he has to steer through the danger. Similarly the president has to deal with issues he didn't anticipate when he was elected.
Syria is no exception. Obama is the Commander in Chief. He does not have the power to declare war, but he does have the power to act. Syria is not any different from Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not a special case, it is a country whose leader is killing his own people and it is a problem to be dealt with. Not only are people at home going to notice the president is acting out of fear of taking decisive action on Assad, but so are people around the world, and the United States looks more and more effete under Obama's lack of leadership to allies and enemies alike.
The president's master stroke politically could backfire, as it rightly should. The president has claimed at various times that he welcomes debate on a specific subject. In the case of taking action against Syria or not, it is a good debate to have. The problem is the president needs to be at the center of that discussion rather than being a wallflower.