On Boston, Obama rightly stayed on the sidelines. On gun control, that same strategy proved foolhardy
When an Elvis impersonator suspected of trying to kill the president with a poisoned letter is the least interesting story of the week, you know it was an absolutely extraordinary week. And as the president himself said late Friday night, it was a very difficult week for the country, too.
During the Boston terror strike, we saw the side of the president that he prefers to show the world: The cool, unflappable, no-drama Obama. He made sure the government was doing all that it could, made several trips downstairs to the Situation Room for briefings, and stayed in close touch with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Other than that, the president got out of the way and let the security pros do their jobs. Obama spent much of Friday following the events, and abstained from commenting until it was all over.
It was a performance that generally drew praise, even from folks like Ari Fleischer, the former Bush press secretary, who noted that Obama struck just the right balance between reassuring the nation without saying anything that might tip off the suspects. Restraint and moderation are important leadership characteristics, and the president showed them last week.
But we also saw another side of Obama that was anything but restrained: Wednesday's Rose Garden eruption after the gun bill went down in the Senate. (Watch it here.) It was a stinging defeat, and after squandering four months and a lot of second-term political capital, Obama has little to show for it. He boiled over in a raw display of emotion and anger: "This was a pretty shameful day for Washington," he raged. In private, one person who saw the president that day described him as "morose."
Obama's angry speech targeted Republicans, and with good reason. He accused them of ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Americans, including Republicans and NRA households, support broader background checks on gun buyers.
"Ninety percent of Democrats in the Senate just voted for that idea," the president said. "But it's not going to happen because 90 percent of Republicans in the Senate just voted against that idea."
The conventional wisdom in the wake of the gun-control defeat is that GOP obstructionism is to blame. That's most of the story, but not the full story. Obama was able to peel off four Republican votes: Arizona's John McCain, Maine's Susan Collins, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey (co-sponsor of the bill) and Mark Kirk of Illinois. But why couldn't he keep his own troops in line? Democrats who broke ranks: Montana's Max Baucus, Alaska's Mark Begich, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. (Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted no as a procedural matter.)
What's the excuse of these Democrats? Pryor, Begich, and Baucus, all up for re-election in 2014, are on thin ice back home and in it for themselves. No way they would stick their necks out. Heitkamp is a different matter: She was elected just five months ago, and said the bill "ultimately would place undue burdens on law-abiding North Dakotans," even though polls suggested that 94 percent of North Dakotans — 94 percent! — supported it.
As leader of his party, President Obama could have given them the Lyndon Johnson treatment — have them over for a drink, twist their arms, call them at midnight and dawn, wear them down. Those four Democratic votes could have gotten him to 58.
And to get the other two votes? Obama's Republican "buddy" Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — who hates the fact that Congress is full of cowards — was a coward himself in opposing the bill, even though he's retiring in 2016 and will never face the voters again. Obama couldn't even get ol' Tom. That would have been 59.
Leaders do whatever it takes. Obama could have targeted one more Republican — dangled a jobs project, pledged to keep a military base open, some kind of horse trade — rather than simply appealing to them to vote their conscience. That's how you do it.
As Maureen Dowd said in The New York Times: "It's unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him."
They were scared of LBJ, a master manipulator, a crafty conniver who knew how to work the system and wasn't afraid to put on the brass knuckles.
But that's not the Obama way, and when it didn't work out for him on Wednesday, it showed. Yes, the Republicans are cowards who ignored the will of the people. No surprise there. But the fact that Obama — with the big-data-grassroots-social-media-powered machine that just got him re-elected at his disposal — didn't take full advantage is baffling. Say what you want about GOP obstructionism. But leaders don't come up short then blame the opposition. They dig in, bulldoze ahead, and find a way to get the job done. No excuses. But that doesn't appear to be the Obama way.
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