At a moment of almost incomprehensible horror and suffering, Barack Obama delivered elegiac remarks at a Sunday-night prayer vigil in Newtown, Conn. The powerful speech hit a haunting apex as the President quietly read off perhaps the most painful roll call in history: the first names of the 20 children who were gunned down in their classrooms two days earlier. It may have been Obama’s most theological address to date as he quoted the Bible and said of the children that “God has called them all home.” It’s easy to imagine how even diehard Mitt Romney supporters might have teared up at the somber grace the President brought to his role as healer, with the bitter grudges about tax rates and health care mandates atomized for an evening by searing grief and existential vertigo.
That’s because Obama’s was not a political speech. “These tragedies must end,” he said. “We can’t accept events like these as routine.” No one could dispute that. But on the matter of dispute — what laws might be changed to prevent the next senseless massacre — Obama was vague. He offered only a placeholder for future action: “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental-health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? … Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
The answer to that question will have to come from Obama himself. But at the moment, the politics do appear to be too hard. At least the politics of gun control, and more specifically the politics of restoring, say, the 1990s assault-weapons ban, limiting high-ammunition clips and creating more obstacles for the disturbed and potentially dangerous to acquire guns.
Influential national figures, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, may be demanding more action. But the Republicans who almost unanimously oppose new gun regulation control the House and wield effective veto power in the Senate. GOP leaders have kept a conspicuously low profile on the issue since the world learned the name of Adam Lanza. Moreover, many moderate Democrats in both chambers are wary of alienating gun-rights supporters in their states and districts. (Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, is among them.)
And then there is the matter of public opinion. Americans are roughly divided on the wisdom of tighter gun restrictions, which are less popular now than they were in the 1990s. Past gun rampages, including the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater massacre, haven’t budged the needle.
Moreover, even the most horrible tragedies fade from memory. The holidays will come and go. Washington will soon return to obsessing over the fiscal cliff. Bills will bog down in committee. Some other tragedy — a plane crash, a megastorm — may saturate our airwaves and Twitter feeds with new tragedies and policy debates.
Unless, that is, Obama doesn’t forget. Substantial change, not only to gun laws but to our confounding mental health care system (much of it beyond Washington’s purview), will require some of the President’s precious postelection political capital. It will require making gun control a true priority of his second term. He’ll have to mount a sustained public relations campaign, shaping public opinion not only to pressure Republicans but also to discomfit rural-area congressional Democrats who are already bracing for the midterm elections, which are historically hostile to the President’s party.
Obama would have to kick off this effort while waging an epic battle with Republicans over the nation’s fiscal future just after his surrender in a showdown over his preferred new Secretary of State. Gun control could compete with other priorities he hopes to unveil in January, possibly including new action on immigration and climate change.
And yet Obama appears genuinely stricken by the horror of Newtown; that much was evident not just from his tone on Sunday but from his tears in his initial statement on Dec. 14. The fact that he chose not to make a political speech on Sunday doesn’t mean that he won’t soon. But if Obama is determined to apply his power toward making these tragedies end, it will have to be the first of many.