4:34 p.m., Friday, Oct. 2, 2015.
Presidential historians may remember that as a highly unusual moment. It is not often that a president of the United States is asked a question that begins, “Is there something you can do …” about a matter of great national concern and his immediate, unqualified answer is a flat “No.”
That is what President Obama did Friday when asked if he can use his “moral authority” and bully pulpit to reach those who see gun violence as a way out of their personal troubles. It is such a rare moment because presidents have all the might of the U.S. military, all the reach of a sprawling government bureaucracy, and all the moral suasion of the office at their disposal. Presidents almost never admit that they can’t do something.
That this president did just that provides a valuable insight into his profound exasperation at the continuing domestic death toll from gun violence. A day earlier, when he came to the White House briefing room to offer his condolences and prayers in the immediate wake of the terrible news from Oregon, he was, by his own admission, frustrated and angry. And it showed, as he struggled to rein in his emotions.
By Friday, Obama was in control. The frustration, he acknowledged, still was there. But also evident on this day was a blunt realism about what a president can—and perhaps more telling, what he cannot—do. So when asked if he could sway the unknown numbers of angry young men considering turning a gun on their neighbors, his answer was no. But when it comes to putting political pressure on members of Congress beholden to the National Rifle Association, Obama not only thinks he can do something, but apparently is eager to try.
The president’s new realism kept him from overpromising what he can do on his own, something he was accused of after the mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. With great fanfare, he named Vice President Joe Biden to head a gun task force and announced a flurry of executive orders. Hopes were raised that things would change. They didn’t. More shootings followed with more funerals. And, with each shooting, as the president disclosed Friday, there were more anguished letters from Americans begging him to “do something.”
There will be no task forces this time. Most likely there won’t be any executive orders, either—though Obama said he has asked his team, “as I have in the past, to scrub what kind of authority do we have to enforce the laws that we have in place more effectively to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.” He all but dismissed the notion that there are any additional actions he can take on his own to prevent the next shooting.
Instead, Obama has concluded that only politics and speeches and public pressure will have an effect. “This will not change until the politics changes and the behavior of elected officials changes,” he said. Rather than backing down amid criticism from Republicans that he is politicizing a tragedy, he doubled down. “The main thing I'm going to do is I'm going to talk about this on a regular basis,” he promised. “And I will politicize it, because our inaction is a political decision that we are making.”
Obama has been stymied in the past, he said, “because of politics. It's because interest groups fund campaigns, [and] feed people fear …” He added, “Unless we change that political dynamic, we're not going to be able to make a big dent in this problem.”
Obama said those who want further restrictions on guns should be as loud as the National Rifle Association is in defending gun rights. “The people who are troubled by this have to be as intense and as organized and as adamant about this issue as folks on the other side, who are absolutists and think that any gun-safety measures are somehow an assault on freedom or communistic—or a plot by me to take over and stay in power forever or something.”
In a rarity for Obama, he urged Americans to become single-issue voters, casting their ballots solely on the basis of guns. “You have to make sure that anybody who you are voting for is on the right side of this issue. And if they're not, even if they're great on other stuff, for a couple of election cycles, you've got to vote against them, and let them know precisely why you're voting against them. … You just have to, for a while, be a single-issue voter because that's what is happening on the other side.”
With only 15 months left in his term, Obama all but acknowledged that he will not prevail before he leaves office. “That’s going to take some time,” he said. Again, this was a very different president than the one who stood in the White House on Dec. 19, 2012, after Newtown. On that day, he announced that Biden’s task force would come up with “concrete” proposals. “This is not something,” he boasted then, “where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.”
Two years and nine months later, the president is not so quick to promise concrete action. His pledge this time came in response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC. “The main thing I'm going to do, Jon, is talk about it and hope that over time, I'm changing enough minds, along with other leaders around the country, that we start finally seeing some action.”
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.