By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — “Don’t get squishy because time has passed,” President Obama told members of Congress.
But they already have.
“Now is the time,” the president said.
But the time was actually three months ago.
Obama made an impassioned bid last week to revive prospects for gun-control legislation, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that his efforts have come too late. His fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has killed plans for bans on assault weapons and large ammunition clips. Republicans appear to have enough votes to block any meaningful expansion of background checks. Public support for new gun controls is fading with memories of December’s Newtown massacre.
To counter the fade, the White House Thursday assembled cops, ministers, children and families of gun-violence victims in the East Room, and Obama departed often from the script on his teleprompter to make an emotional appeal.
“The notion that two months or three months after something as horrific as what happened in Newtown happens, and we’ve moved on to other things — that’s not who we are,” he told his audience. “Less than 100 days ago that happened,” he added, “and the entire country pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different. Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.”
Well, shame on us. A CBS News poll out last week found that support for stricter gun-control laws has dropped to 47 percent, down from 57 percent just after the Connecticut slaughter. Even among Democrats, support has slipped to 66 percent from 78 percent in February.
There is no pleasure in I-told-you-sos on such a wrenching issue, but the failure of the gun proposals was easy to predict. Three days after the Newtown shooting, when Obama was talking about action in “the coming weeks,” I argued against the White House’s slow walk: “In the case of gun control, a pattern has become persistent: A tragedy sparks an outcry for common-sense gun laws and gun groups are set back on their heels, but by the time Congress gets around to taking action, the National Rifle Association has regained its legislative stranglehold.”
Back then, White House press secretary Jay Carney said there was no hurry. He predicted that “in a few weeks or a few months,” the pain from Newtown will “still be incredibly intense.”
Not intense enough, apparently.
Obama’s failure to strike while the iron was hot offers a lesson in presidential leadership that goes beyond gun control. On almost every topic, from budget negotiations to national security, Washington seems only to act these days in response to crisis, if it acts at all. Obama erred in trying to use Newtown to build support for his positions on taxes, energy and immigration. And he compounded the error by sending Joe Biden off to conduct a study — an unnecessary delay when solutions were obvious. Once the president took his foot off the accelerator, no other action — not even Michael Bloomberg’s ad campaign — could maintain the momentum.
Even on the issue of background checks for gun purchasers — a concept that still has 90 percent approval in the CBS poll — the gun lobby appears to have prevailed. The NRA, which once supported the checks, reversed its position, and talks on a bipartisan compromise stalled. Now Reid doesn’t appear to have enough votes to break a Republican filibuster of the gun-control measure he is bringing before the Senate next month with background checks at its core.
Senate Republicans, led by Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are at work on an alternative gun bill that would only increase penalties for gun trafficking and improve school safety. Those are good ideas, but nothing like the comprehensive reforms that seemed possible after Newtown.
So I watched with sadness at the White House Thursday as a Marine pianist played and guests, including families of Newtown victims, took their seats. Some wore badges or green ribbons and filmed Obama as he tried to rekindle enthusiasm.
“There are some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock, or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all,” he said. He called on Americans “to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure that what we said at that time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes, that we meant it.”
Maybe those memories will be enough to overcome congressional inertia. But there’s no substitute for decisive presidential action.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.