I go back and forth between being surprised that Obama hasn’t tried some sort of aggressive executive action on guns and thinking it makes perfect sense that he hasn’t. He’s not a guy who easily tolerates seeing his agenda “stymied,” after all. If he was, he wouldn’t have dropped that illegal mega-amnesty on America last fall. He’s firmly in legacy mode right now and nothing would do more to polish his legacy on the left at this point like some sort of dubious new gun-control power grab. Clearly he’s thinking along those lines with the news lately about trying to bar recipients of Social Security benefits who’ve been deemed incompetent from owning weapons, but that’s small potatoes to the left. The point of any meaningful gun-control effort is to acclimate the wider population to being disarmed, not a small subset of a subset. If he’s willing to clear a path for Iran to nuclear weapons, he’s probably willing to do something dramatic on background checks or assault weapons, at least. So what if it’s illegal? The left will applaud his intentions whether it’s thrown out of court or not.
But then I think no, obviously there’s a difference between the Iran deal, executive amnesty, and executive action on guns that explains why the first two are doable while the third isn’t. Namely, Democrats would wet themselves in fear of a backlash among gun owners in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania next year if O pulled something like that. Most voters won’t really care about the Iran deal until Iran inevitably gets caught cheating, and it’s hard for many centrists to get too worked up about executive amnesty given that legislative amnesty seems to be a goal that both parties share. Gun-grabbing, however, is an animating issue. It would goose conservative resolve to take back the White House from Democrats like virtually nothing else and would backfire by triggering even stronger demand for new gun purchases than exists now. Also, Hillary’s looking to gain among white working-class voters by pushing a populist lefty agenda; if she ended up spending a bunch of time instead defending some dubious executive order on guns, that play would be jeopardized.
So here’s the question: What if he ordered expanded background checks a la the failed Toomey/Manchin bill after the Newtown shooting? The hallmark of Obama’s previous power grabs, from amnesty to moving around deadlines for ObamaCare to launching undeclared war in Libya, was that he had reason to believe a huge chunk of the public would agree with his policy and support him notwithstanding the dubiousness of the procedure. That’s definitely true of background checks, which upwards of 80-90 percent of the public (including huge numbers of Republicans in many polls) back. The risk is that the right-wing minority that opposes expanded background checks will be greatly energized in their determination to stop Hillary, a help to the GOP if it ends up with a squishy nominee like Jeb who may have trouble turning out righties otherwise. More than that, because gun-grabbing is an especially ominous exercise of government power, the idea of the commander-in-chief ordering it unilaterally might scare some people who support background checks but really don’t like the idea of one man wielding the power to insist upon them. The procedural niceties, in other words, really could matter in a case like that, which means an even bigger political headache for Democrats. No wonder President Power Grab feels “stymied.”