Why President Obama can’t talk too much about guns

January 15, 2013

The banner headline out of the new Washington Post-ABC News poll Monday was that a majority of people say that the shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month made them more likely to support some sort of gun control.

And rightfully so, as that data point makes clear just how impactful the shootings were to Americans and their views on guns -- at least in the near term. Majorities in the Post-ABC poll also supported a variety of potential ways to restrict access to guns and/or tighten gun laws.

Here's how those measures fare across party lines (courtesy of our newly named Capital Insight polling team):

But just behind those topline numbers is where the political danger for President Obama lurks. Yes, people feel as though Newtown changed something in the debate over guns in this country, but they still don't see gun control as a top priority for this White House.

Overall, one in three adults said that "enacting stricter gun control laws" should be of the highest priority for the president and Congress. But that number is somewhat inflated by the 53 percent of self-identified Democrats who felt that way. Less than one in five Republicans (19 percent) and just more than one in four independents (27 percent) said enacting gun control measures should be the highest priority of the federal government.

What was the highest priority? The economy, naturally. Overall, 68 percent of adults said dealing with the economy was a top job for Congress and the White House  -- a priority that crosses all political party lines. (Interestingly, the idea of "reducing federal spending" came in a close second to the economy among self-identified Republicans.)

Here's a priorities breakdown among the parties:

The message in the numbers is apparent. When prompted on guns/gun control, it's clear that a majority of Americans agree that a) Newtown changed the dynamic of the debate, and b) something legislatively should be done about it.

But, it's equally clear that the economy remains the top-of-mind issue for most people and that Obama would run a real risk with the public if he was seen as focusing on guns to the exclusion of the economy.

It's a fine political line the President must walk. His base cares deeply about the need to put in place more stringent gun laws, but the rest of the country is far less engaged on the necessity of such a move.

In short: Obama has to make clear curbing gun violence, while a priority, is far from the only thing on his plate at the start of his second term.

Fixbits:

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify about Benghazi before a House committee on Jan. 23.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) is unopposed in the GOP primary for Virginia governor, with the state's filing deadline passing Monday.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) threatens to file articles of impeachment against Obama if he moves to restrict gun rights.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) stops short of embracing new gun control measures in the wake of the mass shootings in Newtown. "It's not gun control, it's violence control," he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will stay in their current roles.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced Monday night that she will support Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. “After speaking extensively with Sen. Hagel by phone last week and after receiving a detailed written response to my questions late today, I will support Sen. Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense," Boxer said.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) may run for governor rather than Senate in 2014.

Something we missed before: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a TV interview Friday downplayed the chances of an assault weapons ban and filibuster reform.

Clarence Thomas broke his seven-year silence at Supreme Court oral arguments on Monday. But, in cruel fashion, it's not clear what he said.

Must-reads:

"Poll: Most Americans support new gun control measures after Newtown massacre" -- David Nakamura and Jon Cohen, Washington Post

"Obama makes opening move in this year’s debt ceiling debate" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"In four short years, how the world changed" -- Marc Fisher, Washington Post

"Rubio Pushes His Party on Immigration Changes" -- Julia Preston, New York Times

"Why Obama May Drive a Hard Bargain" -- Nate Silver, New York Times

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Sean Sullivan | January 14, 2013