Angry storm clouds darkened the White House Rose Garden late last Wednesday afternoon. They blew in not across the placidly gray sky overhead, but across the furrowed forehead, lasered eyes and jut-jawed countenance of the clearly shocked and furious man at the microphone.
The Ex Post Facto Presidency of Barack Obama was once again on display for all to see and hear. We were about to see this president doing what he does best these days: leading from behind. And this time, saving his best shots until after the battle was lost.
We’ve become way too accustomed to seeing our president leading as our mourner-in-chief. Bringing us together to heal after mass tragedies caused by acts of nature and, far too often, by actions of the worst among us who slaughtered scores of innocents by rapidly firing seemingly limitless numbers of bullets into little children and adults in schools, malls, a theater, a political rally.
But not until that moment in the Rose Garden had we heard Obama fire with such tough-truth fury at his latest political adversary, the National Rifle Association. He accused “the gun lobby and its allies” of having “willfully lied” about the most commonsense, bipartisan compromise of all the gun reforms: the plan to finally close the background-check loophole that was allowing convicted felons and people with known mental disorders to evade checks and purchase even military-styled rapid-fire weapons at gun shows and in private transactions.
The idea of finally extending background checks to include all gun transactions was supported by 90 percent of all Americans, 80 percent of Republicans, a large majority of gun owners and even a majority of the NRA’s own membership.
Obama accused the gun lobby of spreading the false claim that the background-check bill would create a big-government gun registry, “even though the bill did the opposite,” Obama said. “This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry. Plain and simple, right there in the text.”
But Obama should have leveled his toughest assault days, weeks and even months earlier. Because Obama was speaking just after the Senate defeated each of his gun-reform proposals, with all but a few Republicans voting no.
Obama and his White House team were reportedly stunned and dismayed by the defeats. But the only thing stunning and dismaying is that they were so stunned and dismayed. Obama has surrounded himself with team that is little known in Washington — and he has not reached out to bring in people to help him succeed where he is flailing and failing.
Ever since the House fell into Republican control, Obama’s team has fallen into political disarray. And while Obama has been compared to President Ronald Reagan for his oratorical skills, he has not followed the example of Reagan, who also surrounded himself with some of the city’s savviest political insiders. Washington’s inside battles are still fought not with microphones but mano a mano — as arms are twisted, deals are made, votes are committed and bills are enacted.
Fortunately, inexperienced presidents can get on-the-job training by listening to a classic textbook on tape: the recorded conversations of President Lyndon B. Johnson (now available on the website of the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas). They can listen and learn (and you can, too) as the master of political craft corralled votes, one by one.
Fast forward back to the Internet Age: To win Washington’s wars today, presidents must maintain a 24/7 War Room. In the run-up to the April 17 Senate vote, the NRA aired an ad that ran on many websites, including The Washington Post’s. It said: “Eighty percent of police say that background checks will have no effect.”
But after the Senate voted to reject all gun reforms, the Post’s Glenn Kessler reported in The Fact Checker that this didn’t come from a real scientific sampling poll at all — it was just from a question answered by those who went to a website called PoliceOne.com. Also, it was based on a question that never mentioned background checks. In short, the NRA intentionally misled its own supporters with an assertion that lacked a solid foundation of support.
For that, The Fact Checker eventually gave the NRA three Pinocchios — out of four possible — for significant factual errors and contradictions.
Unfortunately, the newspaper ran all this three days after the Senate voted, buried at the bottom of Page 2. Here at the intersection of policy, politics and the news media, it seems that we all have lessons we need to learn.