A year ago, President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address in the shadow of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
With friends and families of the slain 20 students and six staff still deep in their grief, the president asked the men and women who make the laws of the land to adopt several modest gun safety measures such as strengthening background checks for would-be gun buyers and limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines.
It seemed as if there was a chance for Congress to escape the clutches of the National Rifle Association and pass legislation aimed at reducing gun violence “I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different,” the president said.
That did not turn out to be the case.
Three months later, the bipartisan bills supported by a whopping majority of Americans were smothered in the Senate when opponents exploited Senate rules and demanded the measures only advance with a super-majority of 60 votes. And 60 votes there were not.
When the effort crashed, Obama noted, it was a “shameful day for Washington.”
When he returns to the House floor to address both chambers this week, the president should remind the public of this congressional failure and use this episode to tell a larger story of Republican-driven obstructionism.
Though a few Democrats joined with GOPers to oppose the gun safety measures, the campaign to block these measures was another iteration of the Republican crusade to thwart Obama and policies supported by most Americans.
Part of the president’s job is to define the national narrative—or, at least, to try to do so. That’s not always easy, for presidents have conflicting responsibilities. They might want to assail political foes, but they also might have to deal with them to pass legislation.
Obama has intermittently taken to the bully pulpit to decry Republican nihilism, mostly during moments of crisis such as when Republicans cause a government shutdown or a debt-ceiling showdown. But in these instances, Obama has sometimes denounced “congressional” inaction, as opposed to GOP intransigence (which has angered Capitol Hill Democrats).
Other times, he has criticized Republican hardliners (a.k.a. tea partiers) while speaking well of House Speaker John Boehner. And when the crises pass, the president usually dials back the rhetoric.
But Obama has not mounted a sustained effort to portray Republican sabotage as a chief problem in Washington. No minimum wage hike? No extension of assistance for the long-term unemployed? No closing of special interest corporate loopholes? No budget stability? No jobs bill? No immigration reform? No new gun safety laws? It’s all due to the same thing: the Republican just-say-no agenda.
But Republicans have been telling their own story for years: Barack Obama wants to expand government and this will destroy the economy and the nation we love. And in that horror tale, the to-do list is obvious: stop him any way you can; he is the enemy.
Obama has been limited in his ability to shape the political face-off as bluntly. He does believe that he’s the president of all Americans and needs to be on the watch for opportunities to join with the other side to forge whatever reasonable compromises might be possible. He must govern-and keep the government functioning, especially for those on the lower rungs who rely upon its services. He does not have the luxury his anti-government political opponents have to obstruct and attack freely and unceasingly. He also has to be mindful that criticism of his antagonists does not come across as an attempt to shirk his own responsibility.
Obama has been disadvantaged by such political asymmetry. Foes of government action gum up the works in Washington, and then they bemoan D.C. dysfunction to discredit the idea of employing the government to bolster the economy or aid American families. (Think of the GOP campaign to undermine Obamacare by closing down the government.) Republicans want Americans to believe everything is screwed up in the capital. This advances their overarching project to undercut public faith in government programs.
This year, Obama has to call out this GOP strategy of sabotage and forcefully present the counter-argument, and yet doing so will only have an impact if conducted in a consistent manner. (Read: over and over.) At this point in his presidency, it appears as if the prospects for bipartisan legislative achievement are particularly low. If that’s the case, the president risks little if he wages a more powerful endeavor to win this narrative battle.
Recalling the fierce Republican obstructionism following the Sandy Hook tragedy and placing it within context will not do much in the short run to prevent other massacres. Yet it could help Obama succeed on a front crucial to achieving victories in the years ahead: gaining ground in the never-ending struggle to define the political battlefield itself.
David Corn is Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones and an msnbc contributor