Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Obama calls out the cowardice caucus

Rarely will you hear a president, or any elected official, accuse those who oppose a piece of legislation of moral failure as starkly Obama did this evening, reacting to the successful Senate filibuster of legislation that would have expanded background checks to gun shows and internet sales (full video here).  Flanked by parents and siblings of Sandy Hook victims, along with Gabby Giffords and Joe Biden, he accused the bill's opponents of lying, caving, and failing in their duty. A sampling of the direct rebukes:
  • Families that know unspeakable grief summoned the courage to petition their elected leaders –- not just to honor the memory of their children, but to protect the lives of all our children. And a few minutes ago, a minority in the United States Senate decided it wasn’t worth it.

  •  But instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.

  •  There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this. It came down to politics -- the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections. They worried that the gun lobby would spend a lot of money and paint them as anti-Second Amendment. And obviously, a lot of Republicans had that fear, but Democrats had that fear, too. And so they caved to the pressure, and they started looking for an excuse -- any excuse -- to vote “no.”

  •  if action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand -- if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future while preserving our Second Amendment rights, we had an obligation to try.  And this legislation met that test. And too many senators failed theirs.

  •  So all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. 
The speech was structured as an emotional and moral triad. In one corner was the moral heroism, the courage and selflessness, of the victims of gun violence.  In another was the corruption of the gun lobby and the cowardice of the senators blocking a vote.  And in between was the American people, whom Obama admonished repeatedly to adopt the courage of the victims and rebuke the cowardice of the caving senators.  He placed himself in the moral middle ground with the American people, whom he assumed would find the moral strength to stand with the Sandy Hook victims (as he was physically doing) and rise to their moral plane. In fact he literally placed them first, having the father of one of the slain children speak before him and introduce him.

The speech represented a doubling down on Obama's alleged realization last fall, which became a late campaign theme, that ""you can't change Washington from the can only change it from the outside."  That was a variant of his 2008 affirmation that "when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens." This time around he is, so to speak, leading from behind the Sandy Hook families:
So to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this. And when necessary, you’ve got to send the right people to Washington. And that requires strength, and it requires persistence. 

And that’s the one thing that these families should have inspired in all of us. I still don’t know how they have been able to muster up the strength to do what they’ve doing over the last several weeks, last several months. 

And I see this as just round one. When Newtown happened, I met with these families and I spoke to the community, and I said, something must be different right now. We’re going to have to change. That's what the whole country said. Everybody talked about how we were going to change something to make sure this didn't happen again, just like everybody talked about how we needed to do something after Aurora. Everybody talked about we needed change something after Tucson. 

And I’m assuming that the emotions that we’ve all felt since Newtown, the emotions that we’ve all felt since Tucson and Aurora and Chicago -- the pain we share with these families and families all across the country who’ve lost a loved one to gun violence -- I’m assuming that’s not a temporary thing. I’m assuming our expressions of grief and our commitment to do something different to prevent these things from happening are not empty words. 

I believe we’re going to be able to get this done. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it. And so do the American people.
A lawyer who goes by the Twitter handle Southpaw, noted that Obama laid the heavy hand of his assumptions on the American people -- demonstrating as follows when I requested clarification:

That is assuming that we collectively will what he wills us to will. Maybe it's that old Obama naivete again.  Time will tell whether the appeal to our better angels is the deeper political wisdom.

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