There are two ways to kill a policy idea in Washington: Broaden it to include every interested person with an opinion, or appoint a commission. If you broaden it, it quickly becomes a cacophonous mess, and everyone throws up his or her hands. Commissions, almost by design, are where action goes for a nap. So when President Obama unveiled his preliminary response to the Newtown, Conn., massacre in his news conference on Wednesday—a commission headed by Vice President Joe Biden to drum up some wide-ranging recommendations—you might have had reason to worry that Obama wasn’t serious about committing himself to gun control.
But not so fast. Obama might have sensed your pessimism, and he is very aware of the dreary history of Washington commissions. Indeed, he spoke directly to that point. “This is not some Washington commission,” he said. “This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.” Instead, he called for quick action and then more action, backed up by the power of his office.
Still, who wouldn’t be doubtful? After all, Obama has done that before. Why won’t he wimp out or drift away in frustration as he did with his promise to close Guantanamo Bay or push for comprehensive immigration reform? Of course, he might. But in the five days between the shooting and Wednesday’s news conference, the president has raised the moral bar for himself. If he waffles now, he will forever stain his second term with an embarrassing show of public weakness and defeat.
If a presidency has one tool that has not corroded, it is the power to set the agenda. To keep gun control from slipping away into the commission fog, Obama put forward a set of clear benchmarks. Usually he might say he doesn’t want to “pre-judge” a group’s work. Today he said he expected Congress to vote on at least three pieces of legislation: the assault-weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, and background checks on all gun purchases. Public opinion supports all of these measures, and the president made clear he intends to use his office to fight for their passage.
The National Rifle Association opposes all three of the measures. In the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the president has leverage over Republicans, but he’s still finding it difficult to wield. The NRA is a much more effective organization than the GOP. We’re about to learn whether the Newtown massacre (along with all the others before it) has changed the dynamic for the NRA. Obama is squaring off against them in a policy struggle that traces back to the core of his presidential mission. He ran for office in 2008 promising to defeat the entrenched interests that had learned to work the system at the expense of the greater good. Now he has put himself to this task again, staring down what is perhaps the most entrenched interest.
The president also promised to address the cluster of issues raised by the shooting in his State of the Union address next month. The speech is usually a laundry list of items, but it’s hard to imagine that a brief mention will suffice now that he’s talked about this issue in such strong moral terms. In retrospect, he also no doubt feels the sting of not mentioning gun control in his 2011 State of the Union just weeks after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The president is also putting at stake his own theory of governing. It has always irritated him that the public and the press demand immediate action on complicated issues. It makes bad policy, and it forces him to act in phony ways, mostly by putting posturing ahead of things he thinks are more important. That was the thinking behind his initial response on the day of the shooting: Focus on the families, and talk about action later. Now he is fulfilling that promise to act, and again he is doing it at a pace he thinks wisest. The approach may not work, but if Obama were to ultimately do nothing or only offer half-hearted measures, he would prove that the Washington skeptics are right. “The idea that we would say: ‘This is terrible. This is a tragedy. Never again,’ and we don't have the sustained attention span to be able to get this done over the next several months doesn't make sense,” said Obama on Wednesday. “I have more confidence in the American people than that.”
He has put a lot of moral weight on this project. Friday, after the massacre, Obama rightly put the human woe at the forefront of his remarks. Now, with today’s remarks, he has twice used the emotional human toll in the service of future action. He’s saying he’ll act in the name of the Newtown victims and families, calling on politicians to show the courage of Sandy Hook’s principal and teachers. To call on those ghosts and then shrink from the fight would dishonor those memories he has purposefully conjured.
Washington is stuck in the mirthless fiscal-cliff grind because lawmakers assigned themselves tough penalties to spur them to action. The thinking was that by making the spending cuts and tax increases so onerous lawmakers would be forced to find a solution. It hasn’t really worked because individual politicians can find ways to wriggle out of the political consequences. In his news conference, President Obama set himself up for a similar long-term penalty: “I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” That’s a bold promise, and it can be checked. Will he use executive orders, public cajoling, new legislation, and his vast campaign organization to advance the cause of gun control and level the playing field against the NRA? Obama has tools. If he doesn’t use them, he told everyone today that there is only one person to blame.