Advancing a Free Society

What's The President Gunning For?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe the flu season has finally arrived on my doorstep, but I find myself agreeing with much of what President Obama had to say earlier today about gun control – words not written much in this space.

Requiring criminal background checks on all gun sales? Seems reasonable enough. You apply for a job, there may be a background check (I have friends whose prospective fathers-in-law did the same -- good thing for the bride they did). Restore the 10-round limit on ammunition magazines and reinstate the assault weapons ban? Again, why not? When a troubled young man can walk into a classroom with more rifle firepower than a Marine infantryman had on Guadalcanal, we have a disconnect.

What I didn’t like about the President’s talk: federal research dollars to study, in Mr. Obama’s words, “the effects violent video games have on young minds.” Like forcing rhesus monkeys to smoke three packs a day, it doesn't take an advanced degree to know the answer: it’s not good (at best, it’s time kids could better spend studying or exercising; at worse, it’s part of the desensitization of our youth). Besides, it smacks of Mr. Obama trying to avoid offending one of his constituencies: the entertainment industry.

Now that the President has spoken, what next?

First, there’s Congress – but not the chamber you’re thinking.

The media will dwell, in typical kneejerk fashion, on the Republican-controlled House and whether any of Mr. Obama’s ideas can receive majority approval. It’s a good question: red-state congressmen see over-reach; they’re also seeing red after the President’s choice of school childrenas a backdrop for his executive order signing. Already stung by Mr. Obama’s tough words earlier this week, it makes them less willing to come to the table.

Still, by dwelling on the politics of the House, the media conveniently forget that there are two chamber of Congress, the other half being a Democratic-controlled Senate that’s not necessarily gung-ho about gun control.

Here, the politics of 2014 complicate things. Five Democratic senators from red states – Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Dakota – face difficult re-elections in the next cycle of Senate elections. That’s assuming they all run. Another endangered red-state Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, just last week announced that he won’t run in 2014, ending his three decades in the Senate. Passing sweeping gun-reform legislation – taking a bullet for the President, if you will – may not be high on their wish list knowing their Republican opponents will use the vote against them.

Add to this scenario Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has a complicated relationship with the issue of gun control. Getting measures through both chambers, not just the House, isn’t at easy as it seems. Besides, if Democrats were in lockstep on this matter, such legislation would have been passed in the first two years of the Obama presidency when the party controlled both congressional chambers (assuming the President really wanted to sign legislation that would complicate his popularity in swing-state America.

Which leads us to another question: what the President does next.

In his presentation. Mr. Obama was adamant. He was tough. His vice president insisted: “[T]here’s no person who is more committed to acting on this moral obligation than we have in the president of the United States.”

Remember those words: committed to acting.

Democrats longing for a feistier, more passionate Obama will rush to judgment as Wednesday’s gun-control announcement being his “Andrew Shepard” moment. That’s a reference to the lead character in the 1995 movie, The American President, who’s long on personal charm but short on political cajones – the movie beginning with President Shepard wimping out and accepting a watered-down crime bill. That is, until the end of the film, when the “American President” discovers love (he’s a widower) and rekindles his love affair with progressive ideals by calling for a showdown with the right on the environment and, yes, doing away with assault weapons and hand-guns (here’s the big speech).

Should Mr. Obama be serious about being the real-life embodiment of Aaron Sorkin’s fiction, here are three suggestions.

First, the President needs to leave the comfort zone of friendly audiences in blue states and take the debate to towns across America that didn’t vote for him.

Second, consider changing the backdrop. Not to discount the importance of this to schools, but the presence of children is both inflammatory and distracting. Want to sell gun control to red-state America? Bring out law enforcement and talk about ending the insanity of cops being outgunned on the streets.

Third, the President should recognize the division in the Republicans ranks. Dug-in conservatives won’t ease up on their embrace of the 2nd Amendment. However, other Republicans looking toward 2016 might see this as a chance to end at least one negative stereotype (the dynamic applies when the President and Congress wrestle with immigration reform). If I were the President, I’d begin with a trip to New Jersey and see if Gov. Chris Christie, long a supporter of gun-control laws, is willing to play along (speaking of 2016 hopefuls, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wasted no time in trashing the Obama plan as an abuse of executive power).

At this time next week, Barack Obama will be well into the first week of his second term. It’s a pivotal time in any presidency – the realization that the hourglass has flipped and the sands of time are running out. And it marks a change in some presidents’ thinking: from what plays in swing states to what impresses presidential historians.

Perhaps that’s Barack Obama’s motivation in the final analysis: the need to get gun-control reform, to burnish his presidential legacy.

Otherwise, tough talk on guns followed by a lack of presidential resolve is simply another episode of firing blanks.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen