Obama gets emotional as he delivers a statement on executive actions to reduce gun violence on January 5, 2016 at the White House. (AFP PHOTO/Jim Watson)
Opinion writer

In an emotional address today introducing his new executive actions on guns, President Obama teared up as he discussed the 20 children who were killed by gun violence in the awful 2013 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama also repeatedly expressed frustration over the failure of our political system to act on gun violence.

Underlying all this exasperation, no doubt, is the stark fact that there is very little Obama can do right now to advance the cause of gun reform. The GOP Congress won’t act on a solution as popular as expanding background checks, and executive actions as modest as those announced today aren’t likely to do all that much in the long run.

So why is he bothering? One possible answer is that, by talking about the issue, he makes it all the more likely that it will be debated in the 2016 presidential race. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has already aligned herself with Obama’s executive actions, while the GOP candidates have condemned them as an assault on the Second Amendment. Obama’s planned gun control town hall meeting on Thursday, to be followed by more such events, will endeavor to keep the issue debated into the 2016 contest.

Ronald Brownstein has produced a remarkable chart, based on Pew polling, that helps explain why Obama and Democrats now see this issue as playing to their advantage in national elections. Click to enlarge:


The chart shows that among some core Democratic voter groups (minorities, young voters, college educated white women) support for gun control is substantial, while among core Republican voter groups (noncollege whites, older whites, rural voters) support for protecting gun ownership is higher. Meanwhile, among some swing constituencies the issue is mostly a wash. Brownstein explains what this means for 2016:

Like gay mar­riage, ac­cess to free con­tra­cep­tion un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act, leg­al status for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, leg­al­ized abor­tion, and ac­tion against cli­mate change, gun con­trol now helps knit to­geth­er a Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion bound largely by shared cul­tur­al val­ues — while fur­ther ali­en­at­ing the cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive groups of older, blue-col­lar and non-urb­an whites in­creas­ingly pivotal to Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­al for­tunes.

Gun con­trol thus joins that lengthy list of cul­tur­al di­vides that is largely help­ing Demo­crats among white-col­lar urb­an­ized voters (es­pe­cially wo­men) like those in North­ern Vir­gin­ia or the sub­urbs of Phil­adelphia and Den­ver, but fur­ther weak­en­ing them among blue-col­lar and ex­urb­an and rur­al voters (es­pe­cially men) in the same states and bey­ond….

Obama’s pro­pos­al — and the com­par­ably am­bi­tious plans that Hil­lary Clin­ton has ad­vanced — shows how much changes in the party’s co­ali­tion have changed its cal­cu­la­tion on the is­sue….Since 2000, Demo­crats have grown far less de­pend­ent on the blue-col­lar whites who are the most res­ist­ant to gun con­trol meas­ures, and have re­placed them with grow­ing groups like people of col­or and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men more open to the idea.

Add to this demographic analyses such as this one from expert Ruy Teixeira, which projects that Dem voter groups will grow as a share of the 2016 electorate, while the blue collar white share of the vote will shrink, and you see why Dems appear less worried about alienating that latter group. As Teixeira has noted, these projected demographic shifts hardly guarantee a Dem win, since the Republican candidate could still prevail by cutting into Dem groups and/or if turnout is depressed among those groups. But speaking to the Dem coalition’s cultural priorities could help prevent that from happening.

Meanwhile, even those GOP candidates who are shaping their strategies around a recognition of these demographic shifts, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, have full-throatedly condemned Obama’s executive actions. And it’s hard to imagine either of them embracing any meaningful gun reform agenda as the nominee. It’s possible this is due to the continued opposition to gun control among those core GOP voter groups.

Obviously it seems unlikely that gun control will by itself have a real impact on the 2016 election. But Democrats seem to be operating from the premise that emphasizing a whole suite of issues that matter to their voters can add up to a broad cultural contrast — between a party that wants to address those Dem groups’ priorities, and a party that is hostile to progress on them — that could help motivate their coalition. The declining importance of swing voters could also make success on that front more imperative.

So Obama will probably talk about guns, and climate change, and even Obamacare a whole lot between now and Election Day 2016. Today’s executive actions on guns, as modest as they are, serve as a reminder that it matters which party wins the White House. Clinton would preserve and try to build on these executive actions, while also likely renewing the push for legislation making background checks universal. The GOP candidates have already pledged to reverse those executive actions, and while it is extremely unlikely that a GOP Congress would ever act on legislative gun reform pushed by a future Dem president, it certainly won’t happen under a Republican president. Obama can’t do much of anything about guns now, but perhaps he can help make this contrast — and the stakes of the election — matter to people. Or at least to Democratic-aligned voters.