Did Sandy Hook ruin Obama, or was it his own earlier decisions?

Written by . Posted in 2014 Campaigns, Featured

Published on December 09, 2013

GunManWebsiteAlex Seitz-Wald has a very provocative argument in National Journal today — that the reason for Obama’s near-lame-duck status is not Obamacare but Sandy Hook:

[D]on’t blame these problems alone for Obama’s record-low 40 percent approval rating. In truth, his agenda went off the rails on a crisp December morning last year, when Adam Lanza strolled into Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 20 children and six adults. Obama hasn’t gotten back on track since.

There’s definitely some truth to this, and you should read the whole thing. The decision to push for gun control in early 2013 — which would have been really hard for Obama to resist — wasted an incredible amount of time and political capital. And it left the impression that if Obama couldn’t get that through Congress, he couldn’t get anything.

And so, the argument goes, by failing to strike on immigration while the iron was hot (right at the beginning of the second term) Obama allowed himself to be swamped with a number of simultaneous late spring and summer scandals (Benghazi hearings, wiretapping of journalists, the NSA) followed by the crisis in Syria, and he was pretty much unable to do anything after that. Finally, the Obamacare rollout becomes a debacle and immigration suddenly seems impossible. 

A couple of thoughts on this: The first and most important one is that you can’t blame Adam Lanza for the fact that immigration reform wasn’t already signed into law two years before he went on his rampage. Obama set himself up for everything Seitz-Wald describes — a series of timed blasts at the foundation of his second term — when he decided, in the first year of his presidency, not to honor his promise to make immigration reform a “top priority.” It took a back seat to carbon caps and….well, here we are, back at Obamacare. He didn’t even lift a finger on immigration.

During his 2008 campaign, Obama had called immigration reform a “top priority” and promised to do it in his first term. But once in office, despite having a Congress that would have certainly passed something acceptable to him, he made the political calculation that it was too risky ahead of the midterms and health care reform was the real top priority. This calculation is memorialized in the pages of Double Down with the following paraphrase attributed to Obama during a September 2011 campaign strategy meeting:

We made a calculated decision not to push hard for [immigration reform] … because although it’s popular with Hispanics, it’s less popular with the rest of the country, especially in an economic downturn.

The fact that this calculation had been made was already evident to the public long before the book’s publication, and in fact even before the meeting had occurred. By mid-2010, the White House was already plotting how to use the lack of a resolution on immigration as a wedge to maximize Hispanic turnout and margins for the Democrats in 2012. Congratulations and mission accomplished — but it required a lot of promises that Obama probably won’t be able to keep now. So again, blame Obamacare.

It’s a less important point, but there are also a few in-the-weeds reasons for thinking the gun control fight didn’t have to end with such a dramatic defeat for Obama — that at least something could have been salvaged from it to make him appear less impotent. At the time, it seemed the White House was too interested in a quick win, and not interested enough in a real win.

Negotiations with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., were hastily abandoned over his proposal, which would have satisfied a lot of people without arousing nearly as much ire from the NRA. Coburn wanted to let buyers run free or very cheap background checks on themselves, which they could then show to sellers, who could verify them online. It would have been cheap or even free to users, and worked the same way as online airline check-ins. Talks initially hung up over the White House’s desire to allow some kind of records preservation, but this probably could have been overcome. The Toomey-Manchin proposal was less practical, but the White House wanted to move quickly on the first bipartisan proposal that came along, and so it did. And lost.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the summer scandals did not prevent the Senate from working its way through and passing an immigration reform bill. And in public approval terms, Obama didn’t really take a serious nosedive until October, when the time bomb he had placed in 2010 (again, by signing Obamacare) finally went off. And it’s possible to blame the government shutdown for his decline at that time, but that was also a reaction to Obamacare, and polls also suggest the public largely understood Obama was not to blame for it. In any event, his numbers have gotten much worse since then — again, because of Obamacare.

So all roads lead to Obamacare.

Sandy Hook helped mess up the timing — there’s no question that Seitz-Wald has a good point there. But this is what happens when you plan poorly. I’m tempted to think of the college student who has a difficult, time-consuming assignment due Monday, but spends his Saturday procrastinating, goofing around, catching up on Netflix. Then, suddenly, he has an emergency arise on Sunday that prevents him from completing the assignment. In the final assessment, it’s all his fault, even if there’s nothing he could have done about the emergency.