Conservatives searching for a scandal to tie down the president are frustrated. While the conspiracy theorists doubt the president’s citizenship or promote the notion of White House deceptions regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, there’s been no smoking gun to seriously bog down the Obama administration.
Progressives see squandered opportunities to forcefully address climate change, be more aggressive in putting Americans back to work or removing U.S. forces from their extended stay in Afghanistan. If President Obama and his team have learned anything from past White Houses, it’s to never get too far in front of the American people.
Then along came last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. A heavily armed young man, Adam Lanza, shot up the school, killing 20 first-graders and six adults in the school. As is often the case immediately after mass shootings, the U.S. public was weighed down with the sadness of so many young lives snuffed out by a disturbed young man with so much firepower at his disposal.
The reaction against this vivid example of the nation’s epidemic of gun violence was such that gun-rights advocates ducked the spotlight for the next several days. Among congressmen in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, only the fringiest were willing to go before the cameras.
Of course, the pattern is that Americans move on after a few weeks. Sadly, mass shootings at places like Aurora, Colo., or Tucson, Ariz., are so commonplace that the nation is often numb to the carnage.
Not with Newtown and thus far not with the Obama White House. The president has assigned a task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to assemble a set of gun-safety proposals by the end of this month.
This week, Biden is meeting with various groups with a stake in this topic. Those who have or will have an audience with the vice president include Ducks Unlimited, the Outdoor Industry Association, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Firearms Import/Export Roundtable and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. On Thursday, Biden met with representatives of the NRA.
“Every once in a while, there’s something that awakens the conscience of the country, and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I’ve seen in my career,” Biden said of the Sandy Hook massacre.
With that in mind, Biden (and by extension the White House) laid down a marker: “It’s critically important we act,” Biden said Wednesday.
Even with the support of the public, acting on a hot-button issue like this is perilous for a White House at the beginning of its second term. Fail to produce meaningful legislation and the president looks weak. Get caught up in a divisive and unproductive fight (a very real possibility here) and risk convincing an already cynical public that Washington is incapable of doing big things.
The administration is taking a risk. Our best hope is that it can achieve something that breaks apart the Washington gridlock that makes it so difficult for presidents to boldly lead.