Last week’s horrible tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon put us back into a repetitive cycle in partisan discourse: A madman commits a massacre. Advocates for greater controls on firearm ownership use their outrage at the loss of life to point fingers at Americans’ right to own guns, and argue for more gun control. Gun-rights advocates mourn the loss of life, accuse their opponents of exploiting the deaths of the victims, and argue that greater restrictions short of outright bans would not prevent future tragedies and would endanger the basic rights of the vast majority of gun owners to protect themselves.
Both sides stir their bases by demonizing their opponents, and nothing changes.
President Obama contributed to this non-productive cycle of finger-pointing and posturing. Visibly frustrated, the President said he wanted to “politicize” the shootings as a way of forcing action on his vague and undefined agenda regarding gun control. He also called his opponents “absolutists.” The desire to politicize was odd for two reasons. One is that Republicans control both houses of Congress. The other is that the Merriam Webster definition of politicize is “to relate (an idea, issue, etc.) to politics in a way that makes people less likely to agree.”
This evident urge to shout down one’s opponents rather than trying to find a reasonable middle ground can be seen among Democrats and Republicans across a full range of issues, including debates over abortion and global climate change. For those of us who are neither Republican nor Democratic, our elected officials’ inability to make compromises or deals is depressing. Aside from Obamacare and the stimulus package (which were achieved with Democratic supermajorities in both houses of Congress), what other major legislation has the President signed? Surely his dismal popularity ratings during most of his second term are related to this failing.
Democrats hold an obstructionist Congress culpable, blaming Republicans for not supporting President Obama’s agenda. It’s an odd claim. The idea of a legitimate opposition in democratic governance is about as old as the idea of democratic governance. We recognize that people can and will have different opinions about issues. Politics is about building consensus to pass legislation that should provide public goods and maximize the wishes of the population. That requires listening to opposing arguments and crafting compromises that might benefit both parties in the long term.
Barack Obama has been a successful President at the most fundamental and basic level: he’s been re-elected. But truly leaving one’s mark—truly moving the government and the country in the direction a President wants to go—means putting through a legislative agenda. And the more highly regarded Presidents have done that.
Consider President Reagan, who it was said President Obama had wished to emulate. Reagan is widely viewed as the most successful modern President who won re-election, passed an ambitious legislative agenda, and left office on good terms with the American public. That agenda included tax and spending reforms, as well as efforts to slow the growth of numerous domestic programs such as food stamps. When President Obama’s supporters carp about the Republican opposition he has faced, they should remember that Reagan accomplished all of those goals despite never, in eight years, working with a House of Representatives controlled by his own party. He faced more opposition in Congress than Obama has, while being subject to the greater media hostility that Republican Presidents always face.
Examining President Obama’s formation and career before the White House may go further toward explaining why he achieves so little with Congress than the strident opposition of the GOP. Before being elected President, Obama only had 10 years in public office. The first seven were spent as a Democratic state senator in Illinois, a firmly Blue state since the 1980s. He then served in a U.S. Senate with a Democratic majority. So as a legislator he never had to compromise to a great extent. Prior to his life in politics, he was a professor and community organizer. Again, these aren’t jobs in which one can only succeed by learning how to compromise or work with people who have divergent views. Professors lecture and community organizers rally support to their causes.
And the President’s shortcomings in this regard are even more stark if we compare his performance to the persuasion and compromise achieved by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in the wake of the Charleston shootings this past summer. In her case, a Republican Governor led a coalition of political and business leaders in pushing controversial legislation through the South Carolina House to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in the wake of the tragedy wrought by a racist killer.
That accomplishment may seem easier to achieve than national legislation on guns. But in a conservative, very Red state such as South Carolina with a history of popular support for Civil War “heritage” and roots in the narrative of the Old South, Haley took considerable political risks to turn the tide against the flag. Harnessing the business leaders’concerns about the state’s image was also instrumental in moving political opinion in the direction the Governor and the rest of the state’s leaders wanted to go.
Enjoying solid legislative majorities isn’t everything, as the case of Obama shows, and also that of Indiana Governor Mike Pence. Consider the public relations debacle that this Republican Governor suffered during passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. In what he called an attempt to level the playing field and protect the rights of citizens in Indiana, Governor Pence and the legislature, which has a Republican supermajority, passed a bill that was characterized as legalizing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The uproar after passage forced the Republican leadership of the legislature to backtrack, pass additional “fixes,” and completely scuttle Governor Pence’s legislative agenda for the next year.
Jimmy Carter was famously unsuccessful as President not only because of the Iranian hostage crisis, but also because he had miserable relations with a Congress controlled by his own party. His fellow Democratic President Bill Clinton, in contrast, got re-elected and got major legislation through despite facing a Republican-controlled Congress for much of his time in office.
If President Obama were serious about working to prevent mass murders, he would have to follow a different path. First, he would have to acknowledge that people have different views on these matters. Even if the National Rifle Association could rightly be called absolutist, he should shelve that kind of vocabulary. Political leadership is not demonizing your opponents. Second, he must offer something in exchange for a restriction in gun rights.
If news reports from the Oregon tragedy, where nine people and the gunman died and several more were wounded, are correct, President Obama has a unique opportunity to make a deal.
It has been reported by a number of news outlets that the victims were asked about their religious affiliations and then shot. While it is always difficult to determine the details when atrocities like these are committed, it seems clear that anti-religious sentiment played a role in the shootings. All of this comes after people of faith have had a rather rough time of it at the hands of the U.S. government. The Hobby Lobby case, fights over whether or not Catholic hospitals have to provide abortions and birth control under Obamacare, and the gay-marriage battles of the past year have left religious Americans justifiably skeptical that this President is really interested in defending the rights of all Americans equally. Moreover, while the overlap is not 100 percent, it’s obvious that a lot of staunch defenders of the right to bear arms come from Red states and are people of faith.
Rather than posturing for his base by condemning those who disagree with him, the President should emphasize the need to protect religious belief and practice and the need for stricter limits on assault rifles and other legislative fixes that can be shown to have a direct effect on lowering the risk of future mass shootings. Such a move would signal to his opponents that really he means to get something done. It would enhance the legitimacy of his claim that his proposed actions would not endanger the core rights of legal gun owners. The legislative package could include funding for arming college security forces (if we protect banks with guns, why not colleges?) and increasing funding for mental health outreach.
In short, it could lead to real results and make Americans safer. A lot of people are just as tired of the senseless slaughter of innocents as the President is. If he takes political risks, maybe they would.