Emboldened by reelection and a fiscal-cliff deal, President Obama is picking fights with two of the most powerful special interests in Washington: the pro-gun and pro-Israel lobbies.
Both groups have enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and wide deference from the White House for years. But Obama’s consideration of sweeping gun-control measures in the wake of the shooting deaths at a Connecticut elementary school, and his Defense secretary nomination of Chuck Hagel, whose support for Israel has been questioned, reflect the ambitions of a second-term president relishing—for as long as it lasts—an approval rating that exceeds 50 percent. If Obama perseveres on both fronts and avoids upcoming crises on spending cuts and the nation’s debt limit, his second term would be off to a rollicking start.
“There’s something liberating about not having to stand for reelection, and I think the president is basically saying that while his first term was governed by politics, his second term will not,” said Democratic strategist Phil Singer, who has advised Senate Democrats and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. “He’s moving forward with an aggressive agenda that reflects his priorities. He’s smart to lay down his markers now.”
Success is far from certain. Hagel’s nomination on Monday raised hackles among both Democratic and Republican senators. The National Rifle Association is clearly braced for battle over new gun laws, considering its unapologetic stance after the school shootings in which NRA chief Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards at every school.
To Obama’s critics, the Hagel pick and the gun-control initiative reinforce what they have said about the president all along: that underneath the affable centrist on the campaign trail is a big-government liberal. Obama strenuously avoided bringing up the subject of gun control on the presidential campaign trail, and to win over skeptical Jewish voters, assured pro-Israel activists that he wouldn't rule out a military option against Iran.
“He’s really an ideologue, and free of election concerns, he’s showing more clearly his true stripes,” said Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative leader who serves on the board of a group that aired an unusually preemptive attack ad against Hagel three weeks ago. “On guns, I think it was a calculation that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania would be hard to carry if he was seen as a gun grabber, and now he’s less concerned about that and more intent on his priorities.”
The “horrible event at the school” triggered the gun-control initiative, Bauer added, but he noted that the administration is considering a broad array of measures that would not necessarily have prevented the violence of Newtown. That suggests that Obama, a former community activist from inner-city Chicago, is considering a response that goes beyond the tragedy and reflects a far-reaching, antigun agenda.
Bauer declined to detail what the Emergency Committee for Israel is planning now that the Hagel nomination is official. AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel group, doesn’t typically engage in confirmation battles and did not comment on Monday. Still, Obama critics saw the Hagel pick as an affront to supporters of Israel.
“He deliberately picked the one nominee who would be controversial because ideologically, he’s searching for a way to distance himself from Israel,” said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under former President George W. Bush and an outspoken advocate of Israel. “This is validation for those who were concerned that the president was only temporarily acting as a pro-Israel supporter.”
Even some staunch allies of the president didn’t disguise their lack of enthusiasm about Hagel. The National Jewish Democratic Council acknowledged that it has “expressed concerns in the past” about the former Nebraska senator. The Anti-Defamation League went even further in a statement from National Director Abraham Foxman. “I trust that the confirmation process will provide an opportunity for Senator Hagel to address concerns about his positions, which seem so out of sync with President Obama’s clear commitment on issues like Iran sanctions, isolating Hamas and Hezbollah, and the president’s strong support for a deepening of U.S. Israel strategic cooperation,” Foxman said. “I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the 'Jewish lobby' that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community.”
Hagel was widely criticized for remarks in 2008 that the "the Jewish lobby" intimidates lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Some of his votes relating to Israel and Iran have also drawn scrutiny.
But both the NJDC and the ADL made it clear that they trusted the president and would not interfere with his choice. Their grudging acceptance and AIPAC’s silence suggest the White House was effective when it reached out to these groups in recent days to defuse a confirmation battle. AIPAC would be risking its reputation and political clout if it took a hostile position against Hagel and he was ultimately confirmed. Obama’s strong support in the Jewish community—he received 69 percent of the vote in November—also gives him some political cover.
From the White House’s perspective, the Hagel pick and the gun-control battle are less about sticking it to certain special interests and more about building new coalitions. On the gun front, for example, that would mean enlisting support from hunting groups and law enforcement.
“The president has shown that he's not one to shrink from a fight against special interests, but in these circumstances, he is looking for leaders in these communities that he can work with to advance shared priorities—whether it’s less gun violence or a more secure Israel,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Former Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and one of Obama’s top allies in the Jewish community, said he was confident Hagel would demonstrate that he shares Obama’s unwavering commitment to deterring Iran’s nuclear weapons plans.
“This is not a first-term president who is forming his policies,” he said. “This is a second-term president, and there are no questions about his policies regarding Israel’s security and the prevention of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Any new member of the Cabinet or the administration is going to follow those policies to a tee.”