A president famed for his cool was visibly shaken; a politician noted for his calculation was ready for a fight he is likely to lose.
Americans saw an angry and frustrated president Thursday evening, a president who has reached his breaking point as yet more innocent victims of gun violence are counted and yet more funerals are planned. For the 15th time in his tenure, President Obama had to face the cameras to somehow lead the nation in grieving the carnage left in the wake of a lone gunman.
As he did the previous 14 times, he offered condolences to the grieving, prayers for the fallen, and investigations for the facts. But gone this time was the subdued resignation that politics in Washington and a hostile Congress keep him from going further. This time, he vowed to go against those odds in a desperate bid to make sure that never again will he have to come to the White House briefing room to make what he bitterly described as a now-routine speech.
A president famed for his cool was visibly shaken; a politician noted for his calculation was ready for a fight he is likely to lose; a speaker notorious for his fondness of the teleprompter was quick to ignore his prepared remarks and speak mostly from the heart. The frustration was palpable and obvious through the long pauses, the grim demeanor, and the appeals to fellow citizens he prays share his determination.
He has tried before to change gun laws and didn’t deny that he may fail in this latest bid to pass laws making mass shootings less likely. But he made clear that this is a fight he is eager to wage in his remaining 15 months in office. It is a battle he enters with his eyes open, already anticipating the press releases, the calls for more citizens to be armed, the criticism that he is somehow politicizing something that should be kept out of politics.
His response was essentially what his predecessor once famously declared: “Bring it on.” He all but dared the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress to oppose him, outright appealing to gun owners across the country to join his crusade. Mocking the well-practiced arguments against restrictive gun laws, an exasperated Obama asked, “Does anybody really believe that?”
Nothing seemed to frustrate the president more than that he was following an oh-so-familiar script. This time, it was Umpqua Community College in Oregon. But he had the script after Sandy Hook and Fort Hood, Binghamton and Aurora, the Navy Yard and Charleston. That he was once again speaking for a community benumbed by a bloody rampage by a man with a private arsenal of weapons, angered him. “This has become routine,” he complained. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation and the aftermath of it, we’ve become numb to this.”
He knows that this routine includes the pushback to what he is proposing, a powerful gun lobby that will argue guns cannot be blamed for the insanity of individuals, that gun ownership is a constitutional right. Anticipating that, he argued, “We are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Before returning to his prepared remarks, he set a goal for his remaining time in office. “I hope and pray that I don’t have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances.” But he has been through this too many times and he seems to know better. It was the one moment where sad resignation briefly supplanted the anger. “Based on my experience as president, I can’t guarantee that. And that’s terrible to say.” Then the anger and resolution returned to his voice when he declared, “It can change.”
The months to come will determine if presidential fury will work any better than his past, more-conventional lobbying and speechmaking.