Following up on President Obama’s op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star advocating for a very modest gun control agenda — basically improving the background check system — Post columnist E.J. Dionne and the New York Times editoral aboard have both begun arguing for greater “White House leadership” on the issue.
Dionne tells Obama to “set a good example by standing up to the bullies of the NRA,” while the New York Times says Obama “owes the country muscular White House leadership to make sure his reforms happen.” Dionne does a good job of skewering the president’s irritating habit of indulging in “false equivalences that put positions Obama purportedly agrees with on the same level as positions he opposes,” but I still think Dionne’s advice is somewhat mistaken.
I think liberals too often call for “top-down” leadership when what’s really required is an effort to create the political conditions where such leadership can be effective. As Brendan Nyhan notes, the legend of Ronald Reagan has given a number of people — including the president — the mistaken impression that the “bully pulpit” is often an effective tool for moving public opinion. Nyhan notes that Reagan’s pollster actually told him that his high-profile speeches were “likely to lower his approval and generate more public and congressional opposition than support.” In other words, “muscular White House leadership,” in the sense of using the bully pulpit to rail against gun violence, is likely to be more counterproductive than helpful, even in service to the very timid reforms Obama was suggesting.
Obama’s decision to invite the NRA for talks was exactly the right one. Extending an invitation to the NRA sends the message to gun owners that their carefully-stoked panic about Obama “taking your guns” is unwarranted.
The problem, as Greg and I have both pointed out , is that the NRA has a political incentive not to tamp down the panic at all. Paranoia about “sweeping gun control legislation” is part of how they’ve become so powerful. Meeting with the NRA might have created the conditions for reinforcing the background check system, but it also would have diminished their influence. So NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre snubbed him publicly, despite their substantive agreement on the core gun control question — whether to focus on people or on guns.
But none of this really suggests that what is needed here is for Obama to get as belligerent as the NRA. Escalation from the White House would only play into the NRA’s hands — the organization would seize on Obama’s aggressiveness to feed the false impression that he’s some sort of gun control hardliner. What really needs to happen is that groups advocating for gun control need to step up their game and create political conditions that will make it politically harder for the NRA to snub Obama the next time he extends a hand of compromise.