In the aftermath of the defeat of gun control legislation in the Senate, the Sunday New York Times offered two very different explanations for the bill’s demise. In a reported piece, the paper's congressional reporter argued that gun control never had a chance to become law in Congress. Despite the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, the structure of the Senate, its partisan makeup, and pressure from gun rights advocates made passage impossible. Then, in the opinion pages, columnist Maureen Dowd argued that it was President Obama's fault the gun bill didn't pass given that 90 percent of the public supported it.
These two stories highlight the central puzzle of the Obama presidency. Is he the president who was thwarted by partisanship or did he lack the skills to manage the moment? There has been no shortage of analysis of this question, but presidencies may be like musical chairs: You are defined by where you stand when the music stops at the end of your term. (At least until historians can offer a competing judgment or explanation.) As big agenda items in Obama's second term rise and fall, snap claims about his legacy will begin to form. These judgments may also tilt people’s thinking about the next president; the public may look for attributes that Obama lacked in his possible successors.
Where should we come down on this? Obama could have done more—one always can do more—but it probably wouldn't have helped. If any president could have solved the problem it would have required a different skill set, one honed over a career in politics. That's not why Barack Obama was elected. In fact, the type of president who could work or cajole the Senate in this political environment would probably never have been elected in the first place.
The passage of gun control legislation is not the best test of Obama's bully pulpit powers. Even those pushing hard for gun control recognized at the start that it was going to be a very tough fight. Public outcry is limited for politicians whose constituents will punish them for giving in to the outcry. Punishing the most electorally vulnerable senators will only help your opponents and, despite the groundswell after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, polling support for background checks does not necessarily translate into political support for them. "We knew from Day 1 that nothing was going to pass the U.S. Congress on this issue,” says pollster Stanley Greenberg. “There was no scenario you could look at this Congress and see that they were going to pass anything on assault weapons and background checks."
Still, Obama tried. He did the most important thing a president can do: He talked about gun control relentlessly, keeping the issue on the agenda. At a symposium on polling and the White House recently, Greenberg used Obama's push on gun control as proof of how thoroughly he can engage on an issue when he wants to—as opposed to his first-term effort to educate voters on his economic plans, which Greenberg said lacked this constancy.
Obama worked on senators in private and turned the issue over to his best congressional negotiator, the little-known Joe Biden. The vice president may be mocked for his gaffes, but he knows the Senate and he helped pass the crime bill that included the last set of strict gun control measures. Obama, who has admitted that he usually thinks he can do his staff’s job better than they can, had his best shot handing the issue over to Biden.
Perhaps that was all weak soup. Obama’s tone was far more strident after the vote failed than in the days leading up to it. You might have expected that a man who was so angry and willing to point fingers in the Rose Garden might have actually marched up to the Senate in the waning hours, as Dowd suggests. Would that theatrical innovation have done anything? Probably not, but it would have made the effort match the post-vote outrage.
In the end, the president's limitations as a negotiator can't be fixed while in office. Obama doesn't relish the part of the job that he's not so good at, and it's almost universally accepted among Washington veterans that he could do a better job massaging legislation, but just because he could improve doesn't mean it would be enough. To win the gun vote would have required a virtuoso’s talent for pressure and cajoling. Working the legislative angle on an issue this complicated, in this environment—especially when Obama held such a weak legislative hand—isn't something a new president can just pick up, like finding the bathroom key.
You have to have had the skill going in, and Obama wasn't hired to have that skill. In fact, it was the opposite: Obama was hired because he was the anti-politician. He wasn't of Washington and he wasn't really of politics. So it should come as no surprise that he couldn't suddenly master the art of politics. He was hired to play the guitar, and he's not going to play the piano very well no matter how many times you tell him how LBJ mastered Brahms.
Why is it so hard to imagine the electorate embracing a candidate today who had the talents that would have been required to pass the gun bill? Because such a candidate would have a long legislative record full of compromises and backroom deals where he or she learned how to break through gridlock and get things done.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton tried to make the distinction between the skill it takes to get things passed and the skill it takes to talk about getting things passed, she got in hot water. She said that it took LBJ to get Martin Luther King's civil rights vision through the Senate. At the time, she was accused of favoring Johnson's role over King's. She was trying to make the case that her skill working in the Senate would help her if she became president, that she was better qualified when it came to translating words into action. We will have to wait until 2016 to test this theory again.