Obama strug­gling to stay on gun-con­trol mes­sage

Re­porters pro­voke him to gripe about GOP ‘war paint’ and an­i­mus against him­self.

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Milbank writes for The Washington Post; danamil­bank@wash­post.com.

It

was a most au­da­cious ap­pli­ca­tion of the Emanuel rule. “Never al­low a cri­sis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel said when he was tapped to be Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

Stand­ing in the White House brief­ing room on Wed­nes­day of last week, Obama ob­served that rec­om­men­da­tion in unortho­dox fash­ion, in­vok­ing the grade-school mas­sacre in New­town, Conn., to ad­vance his agenda not just on gun con­trol but on taxes, the debt limit, en­ergy and im­mi­gra­tion re­form.

“Good­ness,” Obama said. “If there’s one thing we should have af­ter this week, it should be a sense of per­spec­tive about what’s im­por­tant.”

And what’s im­por­tant? “Right now what the coun­try needs is for us to com­pro­mise, get a deficit-re­duc­tion deal in place, make sure mid­dle-class taxes don’t go up,” the pres­i­dent said, adding to his wish list gun con­trol and an end to debt-limit fights. “Fo­cus on is­sues like en­ergy, and im­mi­gra­tion re­form and all the things that will really make a de­ter­mi­na­tion as to whether our coun­try grows.”

It was an un­for­tu­nate juxtaposition and per­haps not what Obama in­tended when he walked into the brief­ing room with Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den to read a state­ment about last week’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School. The state­ment it­self was pow­er­ful: Obama added much-needed ur­gency and speci­ficity to his call for gun-con­trol mea­sures, sig­nal­ing a push in the new year to ban as­sault weapons and high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines and to re­quire back­ground checks for all gun buys.

But the ex­pe­ri­ence showed how dif­fi­cult it will be to keep the fo­cus on this is­sue — and why each day of de­lay in pur­suit of new gun con­trols makes success less likely. The first three ques­tion­ers Obama called on asked about “fis­cal cliff” ne­go­ti­a­tions. What be­gan as an ap­pear­ance to draw at­ten­tion to gun con­trol turned into a fo­rum for the pres­i­dent to taunt con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans over taxes and spend­ing.

Obama, prompted by The Wall Street Jour­nal’s Carol Lee for an up­date on the bud­get talks, ac­cused Repub­li­cans of op­er­at­ing out of per­sonal an­i­mus to­ward him. “At some point there’s got to be, I think, a recog­ni­tion on the part of my Repub­li­can friends that, you know, take the deal,” he said. “You know,” he added a moment later, “it is very hard for them to say yes to me. But, you know, at some point, you know, they’ve got to take me out of it and think about their vot­ers and think about what’s best for the coun­try.”

Obama ac­cused Repub­li­cans in “par­ti­san war paint” of try­ing to “score a point on the pres­i­dent” rather than do­ing “what’s good for the coun­try.” He said they “may not see an in­cen­tive in co­op­er­at­ing with me in part be­cause they’re more con­cerned about chal­lenges from a tea party can­di­date.”

There’s some truth to that, but it drew a pre­dictably an­gry re­ply from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who made a terse state­ment say­ing that Obama, if he doesn’t come around to the Repub­li­cans’ po­si­tion, would “be re­spon­si­ble for the largest tax in­crease in Amer­i­can his­tory.”

Lost in the po­lit­i­cal fire­fight was the real rea­son for the pres­i­dent’s ap­pear­ance: ad­vanc­ing mea­sures to re­duce gun vi­o­lence. Re­porters in­quired skep­ti­cally about his ded­i­ca­tion to the is­sue.

USA To­day’s David Jack­son asked why this ef­fort would be dif­fer­ent from past fail­ures, “given the pas­sage of time and the po­lit­i­cal power of gun-rights groups.”

ABC News’ Jake Tap­per asked Obama about his “po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion” not to talk about gun vi­o­lence un­til now. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“I don’t think I’ve been on va­ca­tion,” an ir­ri­tated Obama replied.

But even as he vowed to take ac­tion on guns over the “next cou­ple months,” his im­me­di­ate tac­tic was to use the New­town shoot­ings to strengthen his hand on the ex­tra­ne­ous topic of the bud­get stand­off.

The need to com­pro­mise on the fis­cal cliff “has not yet taken up on Capi­tol Hill,” he said. “And when you think about what we’ve gone through over the last cou­ple of months — a dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane, and now one of the worst tragedies in our me­mory — the coun­try de­serves folks to be will­ing to com­pro­mise on be­half of the greater good and not tan­gle them­selves up in a whole bunch of ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tions that don’t make much sense.”

The coun­try does de­serve lead­ers who are will­ing to com­pro­mise on the fis­cal cliff — for rea­sons that have noth­ing to do with the New­town dead.

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