Commiserator in Chief: Obama delivers more heartfelt words, and nothing concrete

Rhetoric will cover the tracks of their cupidity, but losing an election is hard to hide.

So much for the radicalized Obama who liberals fantasized about before the election. As that comical fiction had it, a triumphant President, seizing upon a second popular mandate (that thunderous 29% of the vote) and no longer besieged by fears of being a “one-termer,” would morph into a reincarnation of FDR, flinging progressive policy initiatives left and right, overwhelming bewildered, musket-wielding Tea Partiers, brandishing the executive order like a pre-flood Nixon, and finally, like a moulting cicada on the tree of liberty, emerging as that paladin of progressive values we always knew he was.

I think we can now declare that chimera DOA. Sunday night, delivering a moving homily to residents of Newtown, Connecticut, Obama wrapped the tragedy of last week’s senseless school shooting in the prose poetry of the King James Bible, imparting a sense of personal angst and concern that neither George Bush or Mitt Romney could summon in their finest hours. Heartfelt, stirring, unfeigned.

As he unfolded his narrative of parenthood, speaking of the anxiety parents feel as their children move into a fearsome and uncertain world, you could sense the building anticipation—this was a sea change moment. A tangible federal initiative was imminent. A policy worthy of the pain of the Newtown families. The momentous moment arrived: “Over the next few weeks…”

And then—nothing. A tepid promise to work with Washington to address the problem. No clarion call for an assault weapons ban. No angry declaration that the massacres on his watch would stop—this was the fourth. In fact, he quite deliberately shied away from uttering the dreaded term ‘gun control.’ Nothing, it seems, not the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, not the cinema slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, not the murder of twenty children in Newtown, is enough to stimulate Obama to challenge the NRA and handcuff our runaway gun culture.

Everyone else was up in arms. Even New York mayor Michael Bloomberg angrily declared on “Meet the Press,” “It’s time for the president to stand up and lead.” Governor Daniel Malloy of Connecticut cast a spotlight on the hundreds of rounds of ammunition the killer still had in hand as police closed in. Some Democrats called for the renewal of the assault weapons ban. The gun lobby was notably silent in the din of calls for stronger. If there was ever a time to seize the bully pulpit, it was now. Instead, administration officials counselled caution, reminding the public of the fatuous “fiscal cliff” negotiations that are consuming all of the president’s time and energy. Expecting quick and decisive action was simply setting oneself up for disappointment.

This is par for the course. Obama has been faithless to the cause of public safety. After promising to renew the assault weapons ban during his first presidential run, he dropped the issue once installed in the palace of power. He signed legislation that allowed guns to be carried in national parks and avoided using his presidential authority to end imports of semi-automatic weapons. Obama even turned down stiffer rules on background checks put forward by the Justice Department in the wake of the Giffords shooting. Evidently, he was worried the issue would weaken his re-election odds. The list goes on.

Better to expend one’s political capital fighting for a tepid tax increase on the obscenely rich, and through sleight of hand deliver up the core planks of the New Deal to the altar of deficit reduction. Better this than to respond to relentless appeals for stronger safety measures. Words, it seems, come cheap, even if lives do not.

Thankfully, there is a rising chorus of voices on both sides of the aisles—in the Senate, two pro-gun Democrats and a Florida Republican agreed—demanding a legislative answer to the most recent tragedy. Hopefully, it will be these voices that prod the laconic president into action. One would at least expect a bi-partisan ban on extended ammunition clips—an important but woefully inadequate step by a political class perpetually afraid of offending well-funded lobbies, however demented their demands.

For venal politicians, preserving power is vital—much more so than the loss of life. Rhetoric will cover the tracks of their cupidity, but losing an election is hard to hide. For gun lobbyists, retaining the right to the implements of slaughter is a far more exigent cause than public safety. Better to be well armed in the Wild West than disarmed in a pacified society.

About the author

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for Counterpunch, World Can’t Wait, and other political communities. He lives and works in New York City.