President Obama spoke about gun violence on Thursday. Again. And an anxious nation almost certainly tuned him out. Again.
Like any president heading into his eighth year, Obama has had a tough time staying in command of the bully pulpit. That has been true for every modern lame duck in peacetime. But it is particularly pronounced for this president on this topic. For on no subject has the country been more resistant to the president’s pleadings than on guns.
Even with the real specter that the fatal shootings on Wednesday in San Bernardino are closer to terrorism than to the type of mass shooting normally seen, this latest outbreak of gun violence followed a now-familiar routine at the White House. As he always does, the president told reporters in the Oval Office he sends his “thoughts and prayers” to victims’ families. And, as he has in all the most recent shootings, he expressed his exasperation that any American could amass such a deadly arsenal. But, this time—the 18th time he has spoken out on a mass shooting in his 83 months in office—he seemed drained of passion, almost numbed by the death toll.
The 14 fatalities in San Bernardino brings the overall toll for his presidency to 186 killed and another 189 wounded in 21 separate mass shootings since he took the oath of office in 2009, according to a National Journal accounting of the incidents. The first attack came in Binghamton, New York on his 82nd day as president. Thirteen were killed then, and four wounded. On that day, in what almost seems quaint now, he said he was “shocked and deeply saddened about the act of senseless violence....” He has not been “shocked” since, as he has been forced to absorb one horrific act after another.
Obama has tried just about everything to rouse the nation from its refusal to restrict the easy availability of weapons of war. He cried when children were killed in Connecticut; he sang when black worshippers were slain in their church in South Carolina; he led his staff onto the South Lawn of the White House when a congressional town hall erupted in gunfire in Arizona; he formed a task force; he ordered Vice President Joe Biden to marshal the power of the federal government; he issued 23 executive orders; he lashed out in anger after a shooting at a community college in Oregon; he ordered—more than once—flags to be lowered in mourning across the country; he threatened Congress; he took on the powerful National Rifle Association; and he released a 15-page report entitled “Now Is The Time.”
All this only to discover that now is not the time for the flow of guns to ebb or mass shootings to end. Neither anger nor silence nor tears nor threats nor studies made much difference. Unfortunately for the White House, now is probably also not the time that the country will start heeding his antigun message. An inability to move public opinion is a problem that afflicts almost all presidents at the end of their tenures. But it is particularly pronounced today because of the nature of the gun issue and the partisan divisions in the country.
Part of it is that Americans have heard what Obama has to say on the issue. “There is nothing new to be said,” George Edwards III told National Journal. Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, has written extensively about the powers of presidential persuasion. “Not only are you used to that person and you have already made up your mind whether they are worth listening to or not, but they also are unlikely to have something new. They are not springing new proposals at this point in their terms. Everybody pretty much knows what he’s going to say.”
And, in this case, much of the country fundamentally disagrees with what Obama is saying on guns.
“People do tune out presidents. But in this case, it is not so much they are just tuning out President Obama,” said Edwards, noting most Democrats are already persuaded and most Republicans are not open to persuasion on the issue. “They have firm opinions that are long-established, and people rarely change such opinions, even in the face of repeated disasters. The problem that Obama has is that there is a heavily partisan tilt to opinion about gun control.”
Americans are more open to presidential persuasion on new challenges or on issues that are complex. You cannot easily change opinions when you are pushing a position at odds with what people see in their lives—as President Jimmy Carter discovered in 1980 when he argued the economy was in better shape than people believed and Vice President Walter Mondale discovered in 1984 when he argued the economy was in worse shape than President Reagan contended.
“People think they understand guns. They have their own opinions. They are well-established opinions, and they tend to be salient opinions,” said Edwards. “It is well-seeded in their minds, and it’s not new.” He added that it is crucial politically that the gun issue is salient to so many. “You could have a view but not care that much about it. But when it’s salient, it makes it even more difficult to change opinion and it makes it even more important to the politicians.”
The result is the exasperation so evidently felt by a president who has been unable to sway either public opinion or a pro-gun Congress. When Joe Johns of CNN asked the president in the Oval Office if he was frustrated by the issue, Obama did not respond. But he has spoken before of that frustration. He has described the day of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre as “the worst day” of his presidency. And in a 2014 interview on the social-media site Tumblr shortly after six were killed and seven wounded in a shooting in Isla Vista, California, he said his failures on gun legislation were “my biggest frustration.”
He also has said one of his biggest fears is that mass shootings are becoming “routine,” whether the weapons are wielded by terrorists, malcontents, racists, or the mentally ill. Tragically, voicing that lament has also now become routine. And the White House no longer can be certain that anyone is paying attention.