The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama waves the white flag on gun control

During his news conference addressing the shooting of nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church, President Obama issued a stern message on gun violence. (Video: AP)

There were two emotions evident in President Obama's statement Thursday about the murders of nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., the night before.

The first was anger -- at the fact that he was, once again, addressing the country in the wake of a mass shooting. The second was more along the lines of resignation -- a head-shaking weariness about the almost-certain fact that this latest shooting would do little to move the needle on gun control legislation.

"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," Obama said. "It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively."

It's hard to imagine first-term President Obama uttering such a candid assessment of the politically possible (or, better yet, the politically impossible). The truth of the matter is that this is the sort of statement that could only have been delivered by a president who has not only weathered a series of these shootings but also been frustrated by the lack of action they have spurred.

Obama's repeated use of the phrase "at some point" and his acknowledgement that "politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now" are absolutely striking. This is the most powerful politician in the country acknowledging that he has little to no ability to effect a change he quite clearly believes needs to happen.

It's a practicality almost certainly shaped and hardened after the murders at Sandy Hook in December 2012, when Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults. Following that shooting, Obama and Vice President Biden, who appeared at the president's side on Thursday, made a massive push to pass a series of gun control proposals. Despite early indications that both parties would look at the issue, the effort faltered five months after the shootings, when a handful of Senate Democrats up for reelection in red states in 2014 torpedoed it.

"There are no coherent arguments for why we didn't do this," Obama said at the time. "All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington."

The anger present in the president that day -- the AP story described him as "visibly infuriated" -- remains. But some portion of it appears to have smoldered into resignation -- a feeling that even someone elected in large part on his ability to bridge unbridgeable gaps can't institute the changes he feels necessary.

In many ways, Obama's progression on gun control -- from optimism to anger to acceptance -- is the story of his presidency. From the economic stimulus to Obamacare to immigration and, of course, gun control, he has watched as the politics of Washington have proven too much for him (or anyone else) to overcome.

His grudging resignation in the face of that reality was on full display Thursday at the White House. This was truly a president in the fourth quarter of his time in office -- bruised and scratched, uniform ripped here and there, worn down from so many collisions with so little to show for them.