President Obama’s announcement Wednesday of his all-fronts campaign for new gun control measures was big, broad and, in political terms, brassy -- a “bring it on” challenge to his opponents and his supporters as well.
But that was in keeping with the confrontational tone of Obama’s soon-to-begin second term so far, an extension of the sharp-contrasts strategy of his successful presidential campaign.
There wasn’t much surprising in the long list of proposals the president rolled out. He had already confirmed his long-standing support for a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips and expanded background checks for gun purchases. The 23 executive actions he announced, including an order to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence despite congressional restrictions, will be attacked by gun rights groups, but none appears to qualify as an overreach of presidential authority.
The question, instead, has been whether Obama’s heart would be in this fight once the initial shock at the massacre of children in Newtown, Conn., had faded. Judging from the speed with which Vice President Joe Biden produced Wednesday’s proposal and Obama’s public commitment to follow through, the answer is clear: This is a fight the president wants to pursue.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this,” Obama said.
Yes, he warned that passing gun control laws in Congress won’t be easy. (That’s an understatement; even the Democratic-led Senate will have a hard time passing an assault weapons ban, and the Republican-controlled House will resist mightily.)SLIDESHOW: The 10 trigger-happiest states in America
Yes, Biden was careful to define success in modest terms: “We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
And yes, Obama emphasized that what happens next depends on whether public pressure for gun control measures remains high, instead of fading away as it has in the wake of earlier mass shootings.
But as I’ve noted before, the political risks for Obama in pursuing this issue are lower than before. He’s won reelection. His party is relatively unified on most issues, including gun control. (Recent polls show that a huge majority of Democrats favor an assault weapons ban.) The battle for gun control could help Democrats increase their support among suburban women, even though it will make life difficult for Democratic senators from rural states like Montana and North Dakota.
This wasn’t a battle Obama needed to take on. It wasn’t on his agenda before Newtown. Gun control was barely mentioned in the presidential campaign. It would have been easy for the president to offer ritual support for Democratic bills in Congress, sign a few executive orders and wait for the public fervor for gun control to die down. Instead, he’s pledged to do much more. As a result, we’re about to see the biggest battle over gun control in almost 20 years.