For Obama, stinging gun bill defeat is personal and political

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

What happens to a president who romps to re-election, channels a national tragedy that sparked coast-to-coast outrage into a deeply personal crusade, then fails to get a measure backed by 9 out of 10 Americans through the Senate, where his party holds a majority? Thanks to the NRA-fueled defeat of a bill that might have mildly tightened limits on gun sales, President Barack Obama is learning the hard way.

For the families of those killed or wounded by gun violence and who watched with judging eyes as the Senate killed the measure by a vote of 54-46 (it needed a supermajority of 60 votes to pass), what to make of the vote was an easy call.

“Shame on you!” Patricia Maisch shouted from the visitors gallery above the Senate floor.

Maisch, a grandmotherly figure who disarmed the shooter in the Tucson carnage that nearly claimed the life of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was happy to elaborate as reporters swarmed her after the vote. “I decided I could not sit still,” she said. “They have no souls, they have no compassion.”

But on Wednesday, they had the votes.

That’s Message One for Obama from this stinging legislative defeat: Having emotion and the majority on your side isn’t enough. NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, after all, didn't even need to show up.

The knock on Obama has often been that he’s Mr. Spock, viewing his approach as the most logical and assuming that logic will trump the other side’s arguments and emotions. But only the most cynical observers will argue that the president didn’t take this fight personally—with frequent flashes of very public anger and anguish ever since the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary. And supporters of the legislation deployed the families of the slain as lobbyists in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Moreover, as the White House never tired of pointing out, polls show roughly 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks.

"I will put everything I've got into this, and so will Joe," Obama promised in January, with Vice President Biden at his side. "But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it."

In the end, though, four red-state Democrats joined 41 of the Senate's 45 Republicans to defeat the bill. Why stick their necks out for legislation whose death in the Republican-led House of Representatives was essentially foreordained?

"It came down to politics—the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections. They worried that the gun lobby would spend a lot of money and paint them as anti-Second Amendment," Obama said in a passionate assessment in the White House Rose Garden after the vote. "And obviously, a lot of Republicans had that fear, but Democrats had that fear, too. And so they caved to the pressure, and they started looking for an excuse—any excuse—to vote 'no.'"

That would seem to bode ill for Obama in the early months of a second term. A re-elected president at perhaps the height of his persuasive powers couldn't even get his own party in line behind this widely popular measure.

Obama's 2012 campaign juggernaut, overhauled and renamed Organizing for Action—an unprecedented grassroots effort devoted entirely to advancing his agenda—didn't tip the balance. There will be hard votes in the future on immigration, on taxes and spending, maybe on energy and climate change. He's doomed!

Message Two: No, he's not.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a staunch conservative and fierce Obama critic, told Yahoo News that Wednesday's vote was a fight over the Second Amendment. "I wouldn't think it has any broader implication" for Obama's agenda, he said.

So no spillover effect on immigration? "I don't think so," Cornyn said.

Sure, former President George W. Bush's second term never really recovered from his failed push to partly privatize Social Security. But that effort was powerfully unpopular, including among Republicans, while the goal of tamping down gun violence is broadly popular.

Which brings up Message Three: Obama's push on gun safety has suffered a terrible setback, but it's far from over.

Surrounded in the Rose Garden by parents of slain Sandy Hook schoolchildren, Obama never said the words "2014 mid-term elections." He didn't need to.

"We can do more if Congress gets its act together. And if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters," he declared. "You need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed, and that if they don’t act this time, you will remember come election time."

Maybe, but Message Four is that this White House needs to get better organized.

Democrats from states with large gun-owning populations complained privately that the Obama operation never seemed to know how to talk to gun owners. Several told Yahoo News that Obama hasn't really moved past his 2008 depiction of small-town Americans who "cling to guns or religion." Gun rights-favoring media, too, complained about the message.

There was a weird, telling little moment in the debate that highlighted the White House's struggle.

In early April, top Obama pollster Joel Benenson wrote a New York Times op-ed describing a poll his firm conducted that found, as he described it, that Americans don't really know what the country's gun laws actually say. Benenson was trying to beat back the core NRA argument against new gun laws: that authorities must enforce existing gun laws. But his column sent another message: that Team Obama had not really scrutinized the NRA argument until April.

Watch the entire speech on Yahoo! News: