If he loses the vote on Syria, the Republicans will be emboldened to challenge him on fiscal issues, immigration and on his nominee to be chairman of the Federal Reserve...If Obama wins, his position on those issues, along with immigration, will be strengthened just as he also is starting enrollment for his health-care law.That's Michael Tacket reporting at Bloomberg, but you can find lots of similar examples.
It's totally the wrong way of thinking about presidential reputation.
As regular readers know, I'm a great believer in Richard Neustadt's portrait of presidential influence. And so I do tend to believe that a president's professional reputation matters -- in fact, I probably ascribe more to that concept than most current presidential scholars do.
First of all, to the extent that reputation matters, it matters within the context of everything else going on. Most obviously, partisanship. As Brian Beutler puts it: "Syria won’t derail Obama’s second term — Republicans will" (see also Matt Yglesias).
Second...professional reputation isn't a question of "political capital" (whatever that is); it's, in Neustadt's words:
The men he would persuade must be convinced in their own minds that he has skill and will enough to use his advantages. Their judgement of him is a factor in his influence with them...A President's effect on them is heightened or diminished by their thoughts about his probable reaction to their doing.What does it mean to lose an important vote in Congress? It depends! It depends on the context; it depends on the president's actions; it depends on how it happens; it depends on how everyone perceives it.
What will Washingtonians (to use Neustadt's old-fashioned but very useful term for the people who must deal with the president, directly and indirectly) take away from the Syria vote?
Surely the most likely answer is: not very much.
After all, to begin with we're dealing with a fifth-year president, so the question is what adjustments will be made in their view of him. And why would their views change? Obama has, for better or worse, never been a president who was noted for punishing those who opposed him. He's surely never been a president who could be counted on to deliver Republican votes. He's not really a president who could be counted on to deliver Democratic unity, across the board...yes, Democrats did supply needed tough votes on some policies, but not on others. No one in Washington could possibly believe that Obama has the ability to massively change public opinion with a single speech or an extended campaign (that no president can do that is perhaps better understood now than it used to be, but at any rate no one has thought that of Obama since, at best, January 2010).
That's not to say that Obama's professional reputation was terrible going into this fight; it's just to say that the particular limitations that would be on display if he loses are exactly the limitations everyone already believes he has. Whether one believes those limitations are personal to him or part of the general conditions of the current presidency.
Moreover, if we take professional reputation as more nuanced than just "winner" or "loser," then it's hard to see how the particular qualities on display here matter very much to upcoming fights. For example, on the budget and debt limit, the basic reputation question that Republicans will need to ask is whether Obama is likely to cave quickly when faced with a shutdown (or potential default). It's hard to say that anything in this fight -- especially the part of it having to do with working for Congressional votes -- is really parallel to anything in that one.
So to put it all together: what matters are changes to presidential reputation from a particular episode, and then what matters are the particular, specific, changes to reputation, and how they are relevant to future battles, in Congress or elsewhere. I'm open to arguments that it can matter some...I do believe, as I said at the top, that a president's professional reputation can make a difference. But we certainly should not pretend that presidential reputation is the only or even the leading thing that matters, or that one episode can completely rewrite years of examples.