Ed already dug into the meat of today’s executive action on guns in two separate posts, but when the president cries in public, I guess we’re duty bound to put up an extra thread. Whether you think the tears were calculated or earnest, the effect is the same: It gives the media a soft, sugary human-interest angle with which to emphasize that Obama really cares, which was ultimately the point of today’s policy shift. (There’s a good post that could be written about their interest in Obama’s heroic quest to defeat the right, separate and apart from the relative merits of the policies favored by each party, but Ace already wrote that post a few years ago.)
How often does People magazine cover a White House press conference to announce changes to arcane federal regulations? They did today, thanks to the waterworks. (Amy Schumer was there too!!!) The NYT’s headline for the presser runs, “Tearful Obama, Announcing Gun Control Steps, Condemns Shootings.” His emotion, not the new policy, is the key takeaway, which is a mighty fortunate thing given how little the executive order will achieve. “We are here to prevent the next mass shooting,” Obama told his audience. By … forcing small private sellers to conduct background checks before sales? That wouldn’t have stopped any of the most notorious mass shootings in the U.S. over the past few years, all of which involved checks at gun stores before the weapons were purchased.
I think the tears were equal to the moment, though, once you realize what the moment was designed to accomplish. Charles Cooke is exactly right about this:
1) In order to make his actions appear meaningful, Obama is going to have to pretend that they represent serious change. If he does that, though, he’ll permit his opponents to say, “look, we just did big gun control by executive order, we have other things to do, and we’re not doing it again.” That matters. The Left makes great hay out of the “we never do anything” line, and its more effective advocates use our present inertia to justify the need for experimentation. Insofar as there is any, Obama has slowed the momentum for further gun-control. This is not how you win the argument.
2) By taking this route, Obama will help to entrench America’s gun culture — and for little in return. Ceteris paribus, the United States will play host to at least another 20 million guns by the end of December 2016 — many of them so-called “assault weapons.” In addition, the country will welcome another million or so concealed carriers, and another half-million or so NRA members. Every time the president talks about gun control, these numbers increase, and, in consequence, the president’s opponents are strengthened.
If you’re going to take political action with backlash consequences as grave as that for your own side, you’d better be sure you’re getting something valuable in return. Passing ObamaCare in 2010 knowing that it might galvanize the right in the midterm elections was an example of high-risk, high-reward for the left. Today’s Obama gun gambit is more a case of serious-risk, zero-reward. In fact, I’d add to Cooke’s list that Obama took a progressive goody out of Hillary’s goody basket by acting now instead of holding off and letting her institute these changes as president. Remember, she proposed executive action to tighten the regs on small gun sellers on the campaign trail before Obama’s team began thinking about it in earnest. She could have used that over the next few months to impress liberals who are otherwise leery of her. Now Obama’s stolen her thunder, and for what? For a tiny extra footnote in the biographies that’ll inevitably conclude he was one of the most effective gun salesmen in American history?
There’s only one plausible explanation for today’s action, I think: Obama wanted to signal his own virtue to the left. Simple as that. Gun sales have soared during his presidency; he’s vowed action after mass shootings repeatedly, only to fail each time; the backlash to his interest in the issue has even succeeded in pushing opposition to an assault-weapons ban above 50 percent, a dubious achievement for a Democratic president. He could have used his filibuster-proof majority in 2009 to pass new gun laws if this was that important to him, as Sean Davis noted on Twitter earlier today, but instead he decided to screw around with health care. (Same goes for immigration, another subject on which he’s taken executive action.) His progressive legacy on this subject is in ruins. The only move left to him was to do what little he can to tighten the laws via regulation and hope that liberals are impressed by the depth of his commitment. That’s not to say the tears are fake, but they’re perfectly in keeping with today’s goal. Show your base how virtuous you are, even if you’ve achieved nothing. Message: I care. Imagine how impressed Chris Matthews is going to be on “Hardball” this evening. Mega-tingles.