Two term presidents have a very small window of opportunity to move significant legislation and cement their legacies. The week has not been a good one for the Obama administration. With significant investment in the issue of gun control, background checks went down in defeat. Any explanation of this result would have to include several elements: timing, public opinion, legislative incompetence, and the president’s lack of effective engagement. Anthony Downs’ issue attention cycle is undoubtedly taught in every introductory policy class. Following a salient event (e.g., the Newtown shootings) public attention peaks rather rapidly and then dissipates as new issues displace the old. Bottom line: one needs to strike while the iron is hot. If you fail to move quickly, the public simply moves on.
As for public opinion, we have heard endlessly that close to 90 percent of the nation supported expanded background checks. The puzzle: how can an elective body thwart the will of 90 percent of the population? The explanation is not that hard to find. Gun control was cited as the priority for only 4 percent (according to the most recent Gallup poll). There is every reason to believe that the issue was far more salient for opponents of gun control. The opposition was quite successful in making the argument that background checks would lead to registration and, ultimately, to confiscation of guns. The fact that this was impossible under the proposed legislation made no difference (if senators fail to read the bills before a vote, there is little chance that citizens do.) Regardless of the features of the legislation in question, a sizable minority (44 percent) thought it likely that there would be gun confiscation in the next decade. (Noam Scheider has an interesting piece today in The New Republic that attributes the defeat of gun control primarily to the contours of public opinion).
There seems to be a bit of legislative incompetence at work here as well. The Senate bill discarded a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines, focusing instead on background checks. Arguably, a stronger bill would have provided room for bargaining (note to potential homebuyers: your first bid should never be the price you hope to settle on at the end of negotiations). But beyond this mistake, one has to wonder what to make of the majority’s incapacity to count heads and schedule votes accordingly.
Finally, we turn to the president. One of the long-standing critiques of the Obama administration has been the President’s style: broad proclamations followed by withdrawal (sometimes Vice President Biden is sent in to save the day). The President adopted a somewhat different strategy this time: he went public, hoping that he could sway legislators by making a series of public appearances and denigrating the opposition. As Tim Stanley noted in the Guardian, the failure of the president’s approach was a product of his past behavior and his depleted political capital:
Nobody listens to what he says anymore, nobody is interested in winning his approval and nobody much cares if he thinks they have “let the country down”. This is typical for a second-term president who has lost all their leverage because they’re no longer running for office and everybody is patiently waiting for the day when he quits the White House. But Obama’s difficult personality has doubled the size of the challenge. Gloating in victory, adolescent in defeat – the Prez doesn’t make it easy to work with him. Why should conservative senators give him a legislative victory after he has spent four years painting them as knuckle-dragging rednecks who hate women and the poor?
Stanley concludes that the failure of gun control was “a damning indictment of Obama’s presidency – a flash of style, lots of soaring rhetoric and, when the votes are actually counted, little show for any of it.” His prediction: we are facing four years of a lame duck presidency.
It may be a little early to arrive at this conclusion. The next legislative priority for the Obama administration is immigration reform and there is a strong argument that the GOP needs to embrace reform if it wants to expand its base. Yet, one can only imagine that today’s news regarding the Boston Marathon bombers—they were legal permanent residents of Chechen origin—will prove quite useful for those who want to block reform by claiming that the first priority should be to fix the current system. If immigration reform fails, Congress will turn attention to the 2014 midterms and the narrow window for moving the agenda will have effectively closed.