Obama's Last Battle on Guns

No other issue more unnerves the usually cool, stoic president.

His cheek wet with tears, President Obama recalls the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, while speaking in the East Room on Tuesday about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

No one can say for certain whether President Obama’s latest move to restrain gun use is motivated most by passion, partisanship, pathos, or principle. All could be found in his remarkable and emotional East Room announcement Tuesday morning.

Gun policy is not what Obama’s presidency will be remembered for. Historians will pay far more attention to his health care overhaul, his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, his response to the changing threat of terrorism, and his stewardship of an economy that was in deep recession when he took office.

But on all those more consequential issues, the world sees the man who won the office as “No drama Obama.” The aloof professor. The cool analyst. The detached stoic. Only on gun violence does he lose control, even momentarily, of his emotions. It is then that he becomes primarily the father of two school-age daughters. When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down in 2012, a shaken president told the world, “This could have been my son.” When 12 were killed and 50 wounded in a Colorado theater shooting just a few months later, his reaction was similar. “My daughters go to the movies,” he said. “What if Malia and Sasha had been in the theater as so many of our kids do every day?”

Then, just another few months later, 26 innocents—including 20 kids, mostly first graders—were killed in a hail of gunfire in Newtown, Connecticut. Heartbroken on what he later called the “worst day” of his presidency, Obama confessed, “I react not as a president but as anybody else would—as a parent.”

That day was the first time many Americans saw tears from the president. He explained them a few days later when he traveled to Newtown for a memorial prayer vigil: “Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not to do shield our children from harm. And yet we also know ... that we can’t always be there for them.”

It was an amazing profession of vulnerability and helplessness from the man who commands the world’s largest army and controls the world’s deadliest arsenal.

His first piece of advice after the news broke in Newtown was to every other parent in America, urging them to “hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them.” Then came the proposed legislation, the fruitless clash with the gun lobby, the vice presidential study commission, and the first wave of executive orders.

He had gone from his worst day to his most frustrating day when Congress rejected his gun proposals. “There is perhaps no issue where our divided politics has frustrated President Obama more than our nation’s gun violence,” said his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, speaking to reporters Monday evening. Jarrett talked movingly of being with the president when he learned of mass shootings and attended funerals for the victims. In her view, that is what motivates the president to try to do more about the epidemic of violence, contending, “The human fabric that knits together the communities that have been affected is tattered and deeply scarred.”

The immediate reaction leaves no doubt that Republicans who control both chambers of Congress have a decidedly different reaction to the violence and the bloodshed at schools, theaters, college campuses, and churches across the nation. Even before the president’s tears had dried, they were accusing him of trying to subvert the Second Amendment and thwart the right to self-protection. Republican strategist John Feehery, in a tweet, declared Obama’s announcement the “best example of public policy trolling in history.” This reflects the widespread belief among Republicans that Obama knows he cannot succeed on this issue and is merely trying to rile them.

That is why so many see more than parental concern and more than anguish behind the latest White House push for what aides call “common-sense reforms.” As always, there are political ramifications—as quickly seen when the Democratic presidential candidates hailed Obama’s announcement and Republican candidates condemned it.

The nation is divided along partisan lines on guns more than at any time since the modern battle began in 1968, with a debate over “Saturday night specials” in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Then, both Republicans and Democrats wanted something done to curb the violence. That consensus has long since dissipated, though, with most Republicans today lining up as Second Amendment absolutists and most Democrats calling for more government regulation.

Even as he calls for an end to such polarization, the president openly concedes he relishes pushing guns onto the political agenda. “This is something we should politicize,” he said after the shootings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last year. “It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic. ... This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.”

In his often-emotional White House pitch Tuesday, he was unemotional and analytical in talking about the politics of guns: “This is not that complicated,” he said. “The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections. And if you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you.”

He ruefully conceded, “It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency.” But his clear signal is that the gun debate is one of the things he had in mind for his final year when he promised at his end-of-2015 press conference to “leave it out all on the field.”