Is Obama Running Out of Time Against the NRA?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 11 2013 7:54 PM

The Battle Against the Clock

The window to do something meaningful in the wake of the Newtown massacre is shrinking. Will Obama act in time?

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There are a few benchmarks to watch in order to gauge his seriousness. The first is how much he talks about the issue. Will he offer more than the 465 words that Bill Clinton delivered on gun violence in his final State of the Union address, given after the Columbine shootings? In 2005, George Bush devoted more than 1,000 words to Social Security reform, which he pushed in his first State of the Union address after winning re-election. Other things to look for are how many gun violence victims will Obama invite to sit in the balcony? Will he call on Congress to pass legislation by a certain date? Will he promise to embarrass those who don't step up? 

Once the president has kicked off his pitch in the State of the Union, the next test is whether he will travel the country speaking about gun control. White House officials say this is likely but it hasn't been decided. It’s also not the only issue he’s confronting. He’s got confirmation battles, endless budget fights, and an immigration reform push he’d like to start. George Bush embarked on a 60-day road-show to sell his Social Security plan. How much travel will the president devote to this cause that is arguably far more serious than Social Security reform?

One of the key messages, says a White House official, is to “drain the drama and fear” out of what the president is proposing. The message the president wants to send is that he’s not trying to trample on hunters and sportsmen. That’s a necessary precursor to any legislation because advocates for reform argue that the only way they will be able to build popular and political support is if they can split the NRA from its leadership. If the membership can be convinced that the president is not an ideologue trying to grab their guns, they will be less likely to believe the NRA leadership who paint him that way.

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Of course, the Bush tour was a failure. When Obama, or any president, embraces a piece of legislation, the battle immediately becomes partisan. That's one of the reasons the White House resisted embracing the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission. Put Obama's name on it and it would sink. But the president has already wrapped himself up in several specific proposals for greater gun control and committed himself to the task. Plus, if aides are right, and this is a movement and not just about passing the lowest common denominator legislation next week, then that movement builds as the president winds his way across the country. 

During the campaign, when the president said that change doesn't come from Washington, he was criticized for sounding like he had given up. What he meant was that he can't change lawmakers who are stuck in their ways. The only useful change came when people were energized and mobilized. He has an organization that can do this—arguably one of the best in U.S. political history. Organizing for America, his campaign arm, will be enlisted in this new fight, but it's uncertain just how much it will be mobilized. Will a few emails go out or will volunteers walk the streets campaigning for changes in the law?

If the president does make a full push to enact gun control laws or change public sentiment, it will be another test of the bully pulpit and its limitations. When President Obama pushed his health care reform it became less popular. His efforts to pressure Republicans during his first term in a variety of budget fights did not work. Neither of those causes had a galvanizing moment behind it though. The president has also shown signs that he’s going to be a little more combative in his second term than he was in the first.

Vice President Biden reports to the president Tuesday on the findings of his inquiries, and after that, the president will back a set of specific recommendations. He won't offer legislation. Congress will have to come up with the language themselves. Based on conversations with administration officials and gun control activists, few think that an assault weapons ban is possible, though the president will push for one. A plan for stronger background checks is likely to have more support, as are laws that would crack down on gun trafficking. Whether the president can even build support for that depends on his will—and how long he can keep the time from running out.