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Obama to GOP: It’s the Constitution, ever heard of it?

Anyone who has listened to President Obama lately has surely noticed his prominent references to the U.S. Constitution.

Not only was the document a centerpiece of his second inaugural address on Monday; the president also mentioned it when he unveiled a sweeping slate of new gun control proposals last week.

So, what’s Obama doing? Put simply, he’s fighting fire with fire.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Obama’s constitutional references reflect a willingness to push for his policies with the very same document that some of his most vocal opponents have used and continue to deploy against him.

Take gun control. Gun rights advocates have repeatedly criticized the Obama administration’s attempt to impose new restrictions on firearms by calling it an attack on the Second Amendment, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently said the president “doesn’t have the guts” to admit he opposes.

Even as Obama reaffirmed his belief in the right to bear arms last week, he argued that the right shouldn’t interfere with others guaranteed by the Constitution and even referenced the Declaration of Independence.

“The right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The right to assemble peaceably, that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado,” Obama said in his appeal for new gun control measures. “That most fundamental set of rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech, and high school students at Columbine, and elementary school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate … those rights are at stake.”

On Monday, Obama repeated the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble, “We, the people,” five separate times in a inaugural address that sought to affirm the document's place in the current time.

When the Constitution has been brought up in the national political debate, it’s typically been by the president’s opponents, at least in recent years. Tea party leaders who've underscored the need for lower taxes and limited government have  invoked it. Those who fought the president’s signature health-care law all the way to the Supreme Court did so on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

What Obama is signaling that that he believes he can fight -- and win -- major battles on similar terms. His inaugural address and gun control remarks represent his two biggest policy speeches of 2013, so far.

The move may seriously irk those who’ve opposed the president on constitutional grounds. Wrote Roll Call’s David Drucker on Monday: “Congressional Republicans and conservative activists no doubt gnashed their teeth over Obama’s appropriation of the very language that became a rallying cry of the 2010 tea party revolt to support a domestic agenda at odds with their call for the country to rediscover its roots as a federalist republic whose constitution reserved most power for the states.”

How far, or even if Obama’s constitutional argument can shift the debate over guns or the issues he zeroed in on Monday (gay rights, climate change, immigration, among others) remains to be seen.

But this much is clear: Obama -- who, notably taught constitutional law in the 1990s – doesn’t appear willing to let his opponents monopolize one of the nation’s most revered documents in the highest-stakes political and policy debates.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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