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Obama to take his case to American people on Tuesday
(CNN) -- President Barack Obama will take his case for a military attack on Syria directly to the American people in a nationwide address on Tuesday, he told reporters in Russia at the conclusion of the G-20 summit.
Facing public opposition reflected by a Congress hesitant to support him, Obama said Friday that he understands the skepticism over what he labeled "limited" and "proportional" military strikes intended to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what U.S. officials call a major chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 people.
"The American people have gone through a lot when it comes to the military over the last decade or so," Obama said.
He also cited a responsibility borne by the United States as a global power to lead what he hopes would be an international response in order to maintain the credibility of treaties and conventions against weapons of mass destruction.
"I believe when you have a limited proportional strike like this, with manageable risks, then we should bear that responsibility," Obama said, noting that military interventions often lack broad public support but that critics also decry inaction in the face of atrocities abroad.
"When people say that it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well imagine if Rwanda was going on right now and we asked: 'Should we intervene in Rwanda?'" the president said. "I think it's fair to say that it probably wouldn't poll real well."
Opposition by permanent Security Council members Russia and China has scuttled Obama's hopes for U.N. authorization of a military response against al-Assad's regime, causing him to seek political cover by seeking congressional authorization.
"We will be more effective if we are unified moving forward," Obama said in explaining his request for support from Congress for what he argues is a necessary response to the violation of international norms by Syria.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met Friday on the sidelines of the G-20 for what Obama described as a "candid, constructive" conversation, but he acknowledged that Putin was unlikely to shift his position on military action against Syria.
Putin gave a similar account of their meeting, telling reporters that "he doesn't agree with me, I don't agree with him, but we listened to each other."
The two leaders both said they could work together to seek a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Obama's speech to the nation on Tuesday will follow an aggressive outreach strategy to woo members of Congress to back his pitch for limited strikes, expected to be missile attacks at military command targets but not chemical weapons stockpiles.
The administration says it has intercepts and other intelligence that show the rockets carrying chemical weapons were launched from territory controlled by the Syrian regime and landed in opposition or contested areas of suburban Damascus.
U.S. officials also say classified details show the Syrian regime planned the attack and an attempt to cover it up.
However, after classified briefings and two congressional hearings this week, a growing number of legislators have said they'll vote against giving the president authorization for military action, and a majority of the Senate and House remain "undecided," according to CNN's latest count.
"I knew this was going to be a heavy lift," Obama said during Friday's news conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Supporters and critics have called for the president to directly address the American public and make his case for why a military response to Syria was necessary.
"Members of Congress represent the views of their constituents, and only a president can convince the public that military action is required," said Brendan Buck, the spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, who has said he backs Obama on the issue. "We only hope this isn't coming too late to make the difference."
The Obama administration has had discussions with at least 60 senators and 125 House members in the past two weeks as the president seeks congressional approval for his pitch to strike Syria, a White House official confirmed Friday.
On Thursday alone, while the president was in Russia for the G20 Summit, he and senior administration officials made more than 25 individual calls to what the White House described as bipartisan members of the House and Senate. Obama called five senators himself, the White House said. Officials refused to reveal the names of the recipients.
Should Congress reject his request to authorize military strikes, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Friday on NPR that "the president of course has the authority" to act in Syria without support from Capitol Hill, but "it's neither his desire nor intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him."
A senior administration official from the National Security Council later clarified his remarks, saying "the president's intention is to act with congressional authorization, and we believe they will vote to provide that authorization."
Asked several times at the news conference about Blinken's remark and whether he would attack Syria anyway without authorization, Obama acknowledged that he would avoid providing a direct answer.
"It would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I'm working to get as much support as possible out of Congers," he said.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved an amended version of the White House's resolution for authorization to attack Syria by a 10-7 vote. The full Senate will debate the resolution next week, and the House also will be in session to consider the issue.
Approval is considered more likely by the Democratic-led Senate than the Republican-led House, but the high level of public opposition makes the outcome unclear in either chamber.