Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.
The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.
Senate Democrats have already signaled to the president that they are not interested in a vote on an assault weapons ban even if passing it there would put the onus on House Republicans who will vote it down if it gets to them. Though the president used dramatic rhetoric about the need for more gun regulations today, it is doubtful that invoking the victims of Newtown and other tragedies will convince Congress to pass weapons bans that won’t do much to reduce crime. Nor is the unpopularity of the National Rifle Association or their bungling attempts to push back at NRA critics enough to produce the sort of sweeping legislation that would conform to the president’s wishes.
But the use of the White House ceremony as a bully pulpit to hound Congress on guns does give the president a stick with which he can beat Republicans both this year and perhaps even next year at the midterm elections.
President Obama vowed to go the mat to get Congress to support his proposals, but this push should not be seen as unrelated to the other conflicts the White House will be having with the GOP. The rhetoric and the tone of the president’s statements about guns are clearly aimed at isolating Republicans and branding them as extremists in much the same way he has spoken about raising the debt ceiling and taxes. He clearly hopes to win at least some of the fights he is picking with them on guns just as he has did with the fiscal cliff. But even if he loses, the overall strategy here is not so much about getting any specific measures passed as it is to brand his opponents as irresponsible and heartless.
The president knows that his re-election gives him a finite amount of political capital and a limited amount of time to use it. Most of his predecessors have squandered their second terms on failed efforts, like George W. Bush’s immigration and entitlement reform proposals, and were quickly reduced to the status of lame ducks. But exploiting Newtown in this manner even if he doesn’t get his way on assault weapons has the potential to give President Obama the ability to stay on the offensive and keep Republicans off-balance and reacting to his initiatives, rather than attacking on their issues like cutting spending. With the help of an always pliant mainstream media that is happy to let liberals drape themselves in the bloody garments of the Newtown massacre, President Obama may have given himself a major momentum surge no matter what happens in Congress to this legislation.