A President We Can Believe In
Newtown changed Obama. Can it change the world?
Can the slaughter of children in a small elementary school in suburban Connecticut have global implications? Can it change not only the gun politics of America, but also the broader political mood in the country? Can it help transform a cautious president into a bolder one, a calculating man into one of vision and action? Can that president go from a first term full of speeches about great principles to a second one in which he actually takes steps to fulfill at least some of the promise of those speeches?
Barack Obama is a cool customer. Those closest to him will acknowledge it. His supporters frame it as a strength, and in some circumstances it clearly is. But it has also been a weakness. Too often he has been too inclined to do the math, split the difference, be expedient. During his first term this was clear on big issues — on climate, on extending the Bush tax cuts, on Afghanistan and, as we have all too acutely felt again in recent days, on guns.
But Obama is also a father of young girls. The degree to which the horror and the heartbreak of Newtown touched him was palpable, whether it was in his first remarks on Friday or during his extraordinary Sunday night address to the people most affected by the school murders. It was not just the flicking away of tears that illustrated how deeply he was moved. It was the degree to which he set aside — finally — that characteristic Obama caution.
American leaders rarely do what Obama did Sunday night. I don’t recall the last time I heard an American president so bluntly state that we were failing our children and our obligations to one another as a nation. "Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?" he asked. "If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change."
He did not mention guns. He didn’t have to. It was clear that he was saying 300 million guns in circulation is too many. It was clear he was saying that 30,000 gun deaths a year is an abomination. The United States has spent some $3 trillion combating terror since 9/11, and guns at home have killed twice as many Americans as terrorists have killed people worldwide since then. It is not just a national scandal. It is a disease, a fundamental and profound flaw in our national character.
What if Newtown changed Obama for the better in much the way that 9/11 changed Bush for the worse? What if it produced real soul-searching — if only for a moment — and an acknowledgement that the greatest American leaders have been measured and distinguished by how they made us better than we were before? Whether it was the founders initiating our long struggle with the challenges of democracy, Lincoln ending slavery, Roosevelt committing us to helping the weakest among us, or Johnson shepherding through landmark civil rights laws, these men had the courage to say, "We can do better." National challenges reveal the true character of both America’s presidents and its people.
Obama knows better than anyone that changing our gun laws won’t be easy. He knows the forces that are arrayed against them. But he also saw them in disarray and retreat this weekend, with the National Rifle Association taking down its Facebook page and the 31 senators who advertise themselves as "pro-gun" refusing a chance to defend their position on "Meet the Press." Heavily armed America went into hiding. He sensed perhaps that the shock of Friday might start, indeed might have already started to color the rest of the political debate in Washington. And maybe — better still — he stopped caring so much about whether it did or not.
For decades, serious efforts at gun control had been a third rail in American politics. Tragedy after tragedy would occur — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora — and nothing would be done. The Supreme Court, wrong as it had been on Dred Scott and Citizens United, would reassert that an anachronistic provision in the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a broad right to gun ownership, and pols would just shrug. The gun lobby was seen as potent and gun owners were seen as key to electoral margins. Every day 30 people died from gunshot wounds –in other words, every day, another Newtown — because what passes for the smart money in that D.C. said doing anything about it would be too hard.
But the thing that has sustained America and helped it flourish is not that we are always right (far from it: our transgressions have regularly rivaled our triumphs), but that we sometimes see we must change. We have a system that contains the seeds of its own reinvention. And this weekend, our cool, cautious president seemed to conclude that this was one of those moments.
Of course, it remains to be seen if that will be so. For all the reasons that common-sense change has yet to have come, it will be hard to produce. But one couldn’t help but observe a change in the president this weekend. Some of it may have had to do with how he has grown on the job. Some of it may have had to do with his solid victory in November. Some may have had to do with the fact that his tough negotiating stance with the Republicans seemed to be moving the country toward a deal on the "fiscal cliff."
I repeat: Nothing is assured. Time and again, Obama has been a leadership tease, making a soaring speech and following it up with halfway measures or delays. To the doubters this time, I say: Go watch the speech. Watch Obama. Don’t be distracted by relatively minor recent setbacks like the Susan Rice dust-up. After all, in the end, the president wasn’t distracted. He stayed focused on the work at hand, on negotiations on the Hill, on making selections for his second-term cabinet.
As far as how that may impact the rest of this world, we shall start to see the consequences fairly soon. Later this week, Obama is likely to name an experienced, potent national security team led by Sen. John Kerry, currently chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that, working with a more confident president, could be an assertive, effective force on the international stage. In fact, expect them to start out actively engaging in the most urgent of the issues of the Middle East, from Syria to Iran to Egypt to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
And this weekend’s events may have even more important implications, because at this moment in U.S. history, almost all the greatest national security challenges the country faces are domestic in nature. As historian Paul Kennedy long ago noted, great nations tend to fall from within. Not only do guns kill far more Americans than terrorists ever will, but we are suffering from grievous internal fiscal bleeding and, to date, from a political system that has been sadly dysfunctional. That dysfunction, despite what you may read, has happened before in our history. But then some crisis, some catalyst, some series of developments, produces real leadership — and that’s when change and growth and progress and renewal happens.
This could be one of those moments. You will see telling hints as to whether the change is real in the weeks ahead. If the president is able to cut a deal on the fiscal cliff, if he takes meaningful steps toward gun control, and if he moves on the more ambitious elements of his second term-agenda — like immigration reform, promoting investment in education and infrastructure, or shaping a sustainable national energy policy — then you will know that this is a different Obama.
In his address before the Newtown vigil on Sunday evening, the president concluded with a ringing call to action. After a heartbreaking litany of the names of the murdered children, Obama said, "God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory."
That is a tall order. But if you believe as I do that our most basic mission in life is to love our children and that it should inform every action we take, it is also precisely the right star for a head of state or a great nation to steer by.