Obama mobilises his New America
Normally the gun lobby wins these fights because it can threaten legislators with retribution: If you vote for gun control, you are guaranteed to lose votes from people who will vote against you for that reason alone. But after what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, elected officials have to make a different calculation, writes Bill Schneider
THERE’S a reason why President Barack Obama has chosen to put gun control at the top of his second-term agenda. No issue draws as bright a line between the Old America and the New America as the gun issue. It will keep his coalition mobilised — the New America coalition that delivered for him in the election: working women, single mothers, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Jewish and Muslim voters, young people, gays and educated professionals.
Obama paid tribute to the New America in his second inaugural address on Monday. ‘We possess all the qualities’, Obama declared, ‘that this world without boundaries demands, youth and drive, diversity and openness, of endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.’
Obama insisted ‘our journey is not complete’ until the country finds a ‘better way to welcome striving hopeful immigrants,’ until ‘our wives, mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,’ until ‘our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law’ and until all our children — including those on ‘the quiet lanes of Newtown’ — know that they are ‘always safe from harm.’
According to the January Washington Post-ABC News poll, 68 per cent of Democrats do not have a gun in their household. Fifty-nine per cent of Republicans do. Among Democrats, 53 per cent say passing stricter gun control laws should be given the highest priority; only 19 per cent of Republicans feel the same way.
The New America coalition can deliver in presidential elections. Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential contests. But that coalition is not as reliable in midterm elections, unless it’s mobilised by an impeachment issue (1998) or an anti-war issue (2006). Nor is it particularly reliable in battles over legislation. Obama nearly lost the healthcare fight because his coalition got out-organised by the Tea Party.
The second Obama term will be different. The president is now relying on a more confrontational strategy. To do that, he will have to do something he was reluctant to do in his first term: rally public opinion. Use the bully pulpit. Cast aside his customary aloofness. Become the happy warrior. That’s the only way to break gridlock in Washington.
‘The only way we can change is if the American people demand it,’ Obama said when he announced his new gun control initiatives on January 16. ‘We’re going to take it to the American people,’ vice president Joe Biden told the US Conference of Mayors the next day.
The president already has a new organisation in place to rally public opinion: Organising for Action, the reincarnation of his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama for America. Obama described the new group as ‘an unparalleled force in American politics’. He explained, ‘It will work to turn our shared values into legislative action, and it will empower the next generation of leaders in our movement.’
Obama first attracted public attention when he told the Democratic National Convention in 2004, ‘There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America. There’s the United States of America.’ He was elected in 2008 with a mandate to unify the country. He failed. The country is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War.
But Obama’s not alone in his failure. Three presidents before him promised to bring the country together. President George HW Bush promised ‘a kinder, gentler America’. President Bill Clinton offered ‘a third way’. President George W Bush called himself ‘a uniter, not a divider’. They all failed.
Historians like to say that inaugurations bring the country together after an election. Not this one. This was an occasion for Democrats to come to Washington and celebrate their unexpected triumph. Congressional Republicans left town.
In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Obama was the dreamer (‘It’s about you, your hopes and your dreams.’). Hillary Clinton was the fighter (‘If I tell you I will fight for you, that is exactly what I intend to do.’). Now Obama’s ready to fight.
And a fight on the gun issue is the biggest of all. It stirs deep emotions among Democrats. After the unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut last month, it forces Republicans to defend unpopular gun laws.
Normally the gun lobby wins these fights because it can threaten legislators with retribution: If you vote for gun control, you are guaranteed to lose votes from people who will vote against you for that reason alone. But after what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, elected officials have to make a different calculation. Minneapolis Mayor RT Ryback, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, put it this way: ‘If [elected officials] think they’re going to face the wrath of the NRA [National Rifle Association] for doing something, they don’t have any idea what they’re going to face if they don’t do anything.’
The purpose of Organising for Action is to sustain public anger. ‘We can’t sit around for months talking and letting the gun lobby run out the clock,’ Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) told The New York Times. ‘If we’re going to make progress, it’s essential that we move quickly and start voting as soon as possible.’ Strike while the iron is hot, as they say.
Conservatives are apoplectic. This president is not reaching out to them anymore. Some are predicting ‘a revolt all across this country’ (Representative Paul Broun, R-Ga.) or threatening impeachment (Representative Steve Stockman, R-Texas). The president’s response? Bring it on.
‘Get them on record,’ Obama said. ‘Ask them what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?’
Republicans have won elections for decades on a platform of ‘God, guns and gays.’ Last year, it stopped working. Obama suffered no apparent damage from his decisions to allow gays to serve openly in the military and to endorse same-sex marriage.
A rising proportion of Americans — now one in five — claims to have ‘no religion’. The un-churched voted 70 per cent for Obama in 2012. Now the president is demanding a showdown on guns.
The message is: Let the other side run on ‘God, guns and gays’. The New America will beat them.
Reuters, January 22. Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.
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