New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and one of the nation’s most prominent gun control advocates, said he and Biden divvied up a list of senators to call in the hopes of convincing them that backing the legislation would not hurt them in their next election.
“I’m thoroughly convinced that he and the president and this whole administration are committed as they could possibly be to help end the scourge of gun violence,” Bloomberg said.
It wasn’t enough.
Last month, the Democratic-controlled Senate defeated all significant gun proposals sought by Obama after some lawmakers bristled at being pushed by Obama.
Obama, along with gun control advocates, insist they’ll try again, at least for the proposal to expand background checks to private and Internet sales. But the initial defeat underscored the limits of presidential power and suggested Obama faces major challenges for the duration of his presidency.
“We actually thought he and the vice president handled this perfectly. They handled this quite deftly,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a think tank, who served in the Clinton White House. “The gun issues are about as hard as it gets.”
“The president worked really hard on this issue,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “He put political capital on the line. He made it one of his centerpieces of his State of the Union address and he went all around the country to try and rally support.”
So what happened?
For one, Obama and his allies often staged events in states that had been sites of mass shootings such as Illinois, Connecticut or Virginia, instead of states where senators were wavering on the issue.
For another, his high-profile push may have cost as many votes as it won, given how polarizing modern presidents have become.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of four Republicans who voted for expanded background checks, said a better model of leadership would be Obama’s role on the proposed rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws. On that, Obama has expressed support but stayed out of the way to let members of Congress negotiate among themselves. “I think his role has been very appropriate, exactly appropriate,” he said of Obama’s approach on immigration.
Finally, Obama might have relied more on personal talks with senators and less on the bully pulpit, presidential scholars said.
“As soon as Obama jumps in, it makes it hard for Republicans to get behind it,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York at Cortland who has written extensively on gun control. “Obama could have done more on the inside game.”
But Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the importance of public speeches is misunderstood. They aren’t, he said, designed to convince more Americans to favor proposals backed by Obama, but rather to convince them to lobby Congress.
If the use of presidential rhetoric is misunderstood, the power of the presidency itself is often overstated.
Even Lyndon B. Johnson, whose domineering personality and negotiating skills helped fuel his reputation for helping push through major legislation, benefitted from large Democratic majorities in Congress and broad popular support in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.