President Joe Biden speaks with host Jimmy Kimmel as he makes his first in-person appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" during his Los Angeles visit to attend the Summit of the Americas, in Hollywood, California, June 8, 2022. Credit - (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Jimmy Kimmel had trouble hiding his frustration on Wednesday as he spoke with the most powerful man in the free world about why he couldn’t get anything done on guns.
The comedian and late-night host channeled the feelings of many Americans as he interviewed Joe Biden in one of the longest on-camera conversations of Biden’s presidency. Kimmel pointed to the lack of federal action following gruesome shootings in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, N.Y., and pressed Biden on why he hasn’t done more to curb access to semi-automatic weapons. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, handed out executive orders “like Halloween candy,” Kimmel joked.
Biden said he didn’t want to push the constitutional limits on presidential power like Trump did. “What I don’t want to do, and I’m not being facetious, is I don’t want to emulate Trump’s abuse of the Constitution, and constitutional authority,” Biden said. “I often get asked, ‘Well, the Republicans don’t play it square, why do you play it square?’”
“Well, guess what?” the president continued. “If we do the same thing they do, our democracy will literally be in jeopardy.”
Biden suggested that voters frustrated with the lack of movement on the issue need to make clear to candidates that their vote this year will be contingent on their position on gun control.
“You got to make sure this becomes a voting issue,” Biden said.
In polling, gun legislation hasn’t been showing up as a top issue for Americans. “Biden was saying, it really has to become a No. 1 voting issue for anything to change,” says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton and an expert on presidential messaging. “Even if there’s a marginal change among Democrats, I think it is really helpful for Presidents to try to go to these types of media environments to get their message out.”
In recent weeks, Biden has continued to press his goal of reinstating the expired 1994 assault weapons ban. But current negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans are focused on more modest steps, such as tightening background checks and encouraging states to pass red flag laws. Biden blamed the lack of action on “intimidation” by the National Rifle Association and the GOP’s hard-right turn in recent years.
“This is not your father’s Republican party,” Biden said, adding that he believed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was limited on how much he could work with Biden by the “radical shift” in his own party. “He’s a leader of a party that has moved hard right.”
Along with gun control, the White House is gearing up to motivate voters on abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns the protections provided under Roe v Wade later this month. If the Justices follow through with the decision as expected, Biden said, “They are going to cause a mini-revolution and they are going to vote a lot of folks out of office.”
“You got to make sure you vote. Let people know exactly what the devil you think,” Biden said.
Biden was in Los Angeles, California to meet with leaders from countries in the Western Hemisphere. Flashing his folksy smile and talking about his family, Biden hoped to use Kimmel’s stage to reach a broader audience of Americans who aren’t glued to cable news shows. Late-night television shows provide a “much friendlier environment” for Presidents and they typically get a larger audience, Wright says.
Biden tried to show that his presidency can count some accomplishments. He touted how economic growth in the U.S. has outpaced other countries over the past year and how the deficit has shrunk by $1.7 trillion since he came to office. He laid out things he’s gotten done to reduce carbon emissions like encouraging US manufacturers to move to making more electric cars. “This is the United States of America. We can do things. I mean it,” Biden said.
But inflation, Biden said, “is the bane,” before launching into an explanation of legislation he wants Congress to pass that he said would make some aspects of American life cheaper, like prescription drugs and childcare, to offset the increased costs of gas and food.
The president acknowledged that he’s faced challenges within his own party to getting more of his agenda passed, particularly in the evenly split Senate, where Democrats can usually only pass measures when their caucus is united and Vice President Kamala Harris serves as a tie-breaker. Biden has struggled to convince West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to go along with his more ambitious proposals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has balked at his efforts to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy. “I got 81 million votes, more than anybody’s ever gotten. And thank you for those who helped me. But what’s happened, Jimmy, is we still ended up with 50 senators,” Biden said. “Which means that we have 50 presidents.”
Looming unsaid over the discussion was the violent attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn Biden’s win over Trump, that is the subject of a prime time Congressional hearing on Thursday night. Neither Kimmel nor Biden brought it up.
The White House doesn’t plan for Biden to make use of his megaphone during the hearings, and is keeping the president’s role at an arm’s length to avoid accusations of political interference in the investigation of a former president. “The President is probably well aware that these other in-your-face issues like inflation and guns are on people’s minds in particular right now,” Wright says.
At one point in their conversation, Kimmel said Biden and the Democrats appeared to be playing by the rules of a game that Trump and Republicans had decided to ignore. “It’s like you are playing Monopoly with somebody who won’t pass ‘Go,’ won’t follow any of the rules,” Kimmel said. “How will you make any progress if they aren’t following any of the rules?”
Biden leaned forward and joked, “We got to send them to jail. That little box.”