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Why Obama couldn’t turn 90 percent into 60 votes

By John Dickerson
Slate

WASHINGTON In the aftermath of the defeat of gun control legislation in the Senate, last week’s Sunday New York Times offered two very different explanations for the bill’s demise. In a reported piece, the paper’s congressional reporter argued that gun control never had a chance to become law in Congress. Despite the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, the structure of the Senate, its partisan makeup, and pressure from gun rights advocates made passage impossible. Then, in the opinion pages, columnist Maureen Dowd argued that it was President Barack Obama’s fault the gun bill didn’t pass given that 90 percent of the public supported it.

These two stories highlight the central puzzle of the Obama presidency. Is he the president who was thwarted by partisanship or did he lack the skills to manage the moment? There has been no shortage of analysis of this question, but presidencies may be like musical chairs: You are defined by where you stand when the music stops at the end of your term. As big agenda items in Obama’s second term rise and fall, snap claims about his legacy will begin to form. These judgments may also tilt people’s thinking about the next president; the public may look for attributes that Obama lacked in his possible successors.

Where should we come down on this? Obama could have done more – one always can do more – but it probably wouldn’t have helped. If any president could have solved the problem, it would have required a different skill set, one honed over a career in politics. That’s not why Barack Obama was elected. In fact, the type of president who could work or cajole the Senate in this political environment would probably never have been elected in the first place.

The passage of gun control legislation is not the best test of Obama’s bully pulpit powers. Even those pushing hard for gun control recognized at the start that it was going to be a very tough fight. Public outcry is limited for politicians whose constituents will punish them for giving in to the outcry. Punishing the most electorally vulnerable senators will only help your opponents and, despite the groundswell after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, polling support for background checks does not necessarily translate into political support for them. “We knew from Day 1 that nothing was going to pass the U.S. Congress on this issue,” says pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Still, Obama tried. He did the most important thing a president can do: He talked about gun control relentlessly, keeping the issue on the agenda. At a symposium on polling and the White House recently, Greenberg used Obama’s push on gun control as proof of how thoroughly he can engage on an issue when he wants to – as opposed to his first-term effort to educate voters on his economic plans, which Greenberg said lacked this constancy.

Obama worked on senators in private and turned the issue over to his best congressional negotiator, the little-known Joe Biden. The vice president may be mocked for his gaffes, but he knows the Senate and he helped pass the crime bill that included the last set of strict gun control measures. Obama had his best shot handing the issue over to Biden.

Perhaps that was all weak soup. Obama’s tone was far more strident after the vote failed than in the days leading up to it. You might have expected that a man who was so willing to point fingers in the Rose Garden might have actually marched up to the Senate in the waning hours, as Dowd suggests. Would that theatrical innovation have done anything? Probably not, but it would have made the effort match the post-vote outrage.

In the end, the president’s limitations as a negotiator can’t be fixed while in office. Obama doesn’t relish the part of the job that he’s not so good at, and it’s almost universally accepted in Washington that he could do a better job massaging legislation. But just because he could improve doesn’t mean it would be enough.

Dickerson can be reached at slatepolitics@gmail.com.
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