Barack Obama's determination to enact a gun control measure in the wake of the Connecticut shootings could transform his place in history.
Success, which is anything but assured, given the lobbies arrayed against him and the many failures of such measures, could upend more than two centuries of American tradition. It also could boost the president into the pantheon of liberal presidents, placing him beside Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson as the principal progressives in modern American history.
This may seem discordant with the prevailing view of Obama as a reluctant warrior, a halting leader, an eager compromiser whose opponents are more vocal and more committed than he or his supporters. And on the surface, Obama's accomplishments may seem to pale next to those of FDR and LBJ, both of whom passed multiple pieces of major legislation and whose programmatic principles fit neatly under the two-word thematic umbrellas of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Obama lacks such an overarching template, and his signature achievements -- overhauls of health care and financial services to accompany a potential victory on gun control -- would be more modest in number than those of Roosevelt (scores of alphabet-soup initiatives in just a hundred days, not to mention the Second New Deal) and Johnson (a war on poverty, housing programs, grand civil rights victories and sprawling educational enterprises).
All that is true. But with a victory on guns Obama would deserve an exalted place not because he could match those who came before him program for program or initiative for initiative but because, unlike them, he would have achieved major liberal goals that had eluded his predecessors for generations.
The first, of course, is a comprehensive overhaul of the health care system, which accounts for about one-seventh of the economy, arguably affecting more Americans more deeply than any measure promoted by any president ever.
This is not liberal propaganda, for if you listen to conservatives you will hear the identical argument made with regret: that Obamacare and Dodd-Frank are massive intrusions of government interference in the economy with little if any precedent. If that argument can be made persuasively by conservatives, and you can hear it almost daily on talk radio, then it can be made by liberals to elevate Obama among progressive presidents.
A victory on gun control would similarly set off an earthquake across the American political landscape.
Curtailing the availability of weapons has been a liberal goal since the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, with a few conservatives, including former White House press secretary James Brady, joining the effort after the 1981 attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What Obama almost certainly will propose will be more far-reaching than any proposal on this subject by any previous president, and if he prevails he will have succeeded where other chief executives with liberal leanings, including Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have failed.
Although liberals would be reluctant to agree, a victory on gun control also would be a profound departure in American progressive history.
The story of American liberalism is the accumulation of rights. The nation began with brave Enlightenment-era talk about the rights of man, but that very phrase, part of the vocabulary of the late 18th century and the title of a Thomas Paine manifesto, specifically omitted half the population and, because of the presence of slavery in the new nation (and the decision to count slaves as three-fifths of a person), delegated these vaunted rights to a distinct minority of people who thought they lived in a land consecrated by majority rule.
The glory of American liberalism has been the extension of rights to those who did not own property, to those who were not male, to those who were not white, to those who were not straight.
But a major gun control victory for Obama -- awarded an "F" by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence after signing 2009 legislation permitting people to carry concealed weapons in national parks -- would be the first significant abrogation of American rights in our history.
Prohibition does not count; the 18th amendment did not curtail what had been a constitutionally protected right. Limiting gun rights, as NRA members argue, would do so.
Obama's higher status would reflect his success in redeeming long-sought liberal measures. Though he would have only a few legislative achievements to his credit -- plus nudging same-sex marriage toward the mainstream -- the decades-long resistance to his initiatives would give them special standing.
Most of Roosevelt's accomplishments, which include the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Wagner Act, the Works Progress Administration and others, were emergency responses to the Great Depression, not measures longed for by liberals for decades. Obama's health care overhaul is arguably as profound an element of the American social contract as FDR's Social Security Act of 1935 (and LBJ's Medicare legislation of 1965). Roosevelt's legislation creating the National Recovery Administration was struck down by the Supreme Court, while Obama's health care legislation was upheld.
By the same token, many of Johnson's Great Society initiatives grew out a sense that a nation as prosperous as mid-1960s America ought to share its bounty with the aged, hungry, poor and striving. Indeed, aside from civil rights, most of the Great Society projects were quickly conceived, not long-thwarted.
Obama has stirred bitter opposition from conservatives and bitter disappointment from liberals. Though conservatives believe he personifies unbounded liberalism, many of his putative allies believe he hasn't pushed hard or far enough. If a major gun control measure is signed into law, history will argue otherwise.
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