White House

After failure on gun legislation, Obama learning limits of his power

Six months after his triumphant re-election, President Barack Obama has run into the hard reality of the modern presidency.

The cheering crowds that helped vault him into a second term in the White House mean little, if anything, back in Washington. A close look at his most recent defeat – a series of proposals intended to curb gun violence – shows that election popularity does not automatically translate into legislative success. Nor do campaign-like efforts to win a vote in Congress. Obama put more effort into the proposals than he has most issues, but he still suffered one of his biggest legislative defeats.

The defeat illustrates a key truth – for all their power, presidents rarely succeed in manipulating votes on Capitol Hill. If anything, their abilities to twist arms have grown even more limited in recent years. Strained budgets leave them no extra money or pet projects to offer lawmakers in return for votes. And Obama’s detached personality and short history in Washington make him even less likely to wheel and deal with lawmakers.

“There’s not much presidents can do to change votes. It’s mostly a myth,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “It’s never been that way and it’s less so now.”

His own election victory still fresh in his mind, Obama thought he had a clear path to bend Congress to his will after the horror of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December. His goal: the first significant new controls on guns in a generation.

He tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead a task force to examine gun laws. Biden spent a month speaking to more than 200 organizations on all sides of the issue, from crime victims to religious leaders, law enforcement organizations to gun manufacturers.

Obama unveiled his sweeping package of executive actions and proposed legislation in January. He immediately began trying to sell it.

By the standards of a campaign, he did everything right.

Obama and Biden gave more than 30 speeches, interviews and online chats, oftentimes with families of gun victims at their side.

First lady Michelle Obama made a rare foray into the debate by delivering an emotional speech in her hometown of Chicago.

Obama’s political organization, Organizing for Action, held dozens of events, including candlelight vigils, rallies and meetings across the nation pushing the legislation.

Obama flew Newtown families to Washington to lobby senators and turned over his radio address for the first time to the parents of a slain child.

He did not win support for a proposal to renew a ban on assault weapons or to limit ammunition in clips. But support for greater background checks for gun purchases topped 90 percent in the polls. If it were an election with voters choosing whether to pass background checks, Obama would have won a landslide.

But it was not an either-or choice. Congress could choose to do nothing.

In March and April, Obama and Biden spoke to nearly 30 senators in 45 meetings or phone calls, according to the White House. The president stressed gun control proposals at a pair of dinners with Republican senators. In the final days before the vote, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, visited an undecided Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, but failed to convince her to vote for the background check legislation.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and one of the nation’s most prominent gun control advocates, said he and Biden divvied up a list of senators to call in the hopes of convincing them that backing the legislation would not hurt them in their next election.

“I’m thoroughly convinced that he and the president and this whole administration are committed as they could possibly be to help end the scourge of gun violence,” Bloomberg said.

It wasn’t enough.

Last month, the Democratic-controlled Senate defeated all significant gun proposals sought by Obama after some lawmakers bristled at being pushed by Obama.

Obama, along with gun control advocates, insist they’ll try again, at least for the proposal to expand background checks to private and Internet sales. But the initial defeat underscored the limits of presidential power and suggested Obama faces major challenges for the duration of his presidency.

“We actually thought he and the vice president handled this perfectly. They handled this quite deftly,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a think tank, who served in the Clinton White House. “The gun issues are about as hard as it gets.”

“The president worked really hard on this issue,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “He put political capital on the line. He made it one of his centerpieces of his State of the Union address and he went all around the country to try and rally support.”

So what happened?

For one, Obama and his allies often staged events in states that had been sites of mass shootings such as Illinois, Connecticut or Virginia, instead of states where senators were wavering on the issue.

For another, his high-profile push may have cost as many votes as it won, given how polarizing modern presidents have become.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of four Republicans who voted for expanded background checks, said a better model of leadership would be Obama’s role on the proposed rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws. On that, Obama has expressed support but stayed out of the way to let members of Congress negotiate among themselves. “I think his role has been very appropriate, exactly appropriate,” he said of Obama’s approach on immigration.

Finally, Obama might have relied more on personal talks with senators and less on the bully pulpit, presidential scholars said.

“As soon as Obama jumps in, it makes it hard for Republicans to get behind it,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York at Cortland who has written extensively on gun control. “Obama could have done more on the inside game.”

But Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the importance of public speeches is misunderstood. They aren’t, he said, designed to convince more Americans to favor proposals backed by Obama, but rather to convince them to lobby Congress.

If the use of presidential rhetoric is misunderstood, the power of the presidency itself is often overstated.

Even Lyndon B. Johnson, whose domineering personality and negotiating skills helped fuel his reputation for helping push through major legislation, benefitted from large Democratic majorities in Congress and broad popular support in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

There have been instances where presidents have helped get legislation passed, though they are the exception, not the rule.

Bill Clinton offered to support Republicans who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement. George W. Bush pushed through prescription drug coverage in a rare middle-of-the-night vote in the House of Representatives by making last-minute phone calls to lawmakers.

But Obama’s effort to lobby or socialize with lawmakers has been sporadic, and some of his recent dinners came after the gun votes were all but locked up.

Also, he has little to offer the lawmakers.

While Washington was once a place where lawmakers openly traded votes with goodies from the White House – a president’s attendance at an event or a project in their home state – it’s not like that anymore.

The practice of offering so-called earmarks – pet projects for lawmakers tucked into appropriations bills – fell out of favor following years of criticism by watchdog groups, constituents and even some lawmakers themselves. And even if it hadn’t, the money for many of those projects has dried up as the economy took a downturn and the government slashed budgets.

“There’s not a lot he can give,” said John Burke, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who studies the presidency.

Still, some say, Obama should have offered senators appointments to boards or behind-the-scenes assistance with fundraising – items that even senators from conservative states who want to keep their distance from the president might want.

But in a recent wide-ranging news conference, Obama pushed back on the notion that he could get Congress to – as he called it – “behave.”

“I can urge them to,” he said. “I can put pressure on them. I can, you know, rally the American people. . . . But ultimately they themselves are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing.”