In the aftermath of the defeat of gun control legislation in the Senate, the 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 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. (At least until historians can offer a competing judgment or explanation.) 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. “There was no scenario you could look at this Congress and see that they were going to pass anything on assault weapons and background checks.”