Michelle Obama is on Twitter! That was big news on Thursday, the first lady’s birthday. The White House announced that Mrs. Obama had launched a new Twitter account, @FLOTUS, and lots of folks chimed in with messages welcoming her to the world of micro-blogging social media.
But hold it – wasn’t she already on Twitter? We’ve been following @MichelleObama since the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign. Is this a reboot, a dual account, or what? Is it the equivalent of the grand opening of a store that’s been in business for months?
Sort of, yes. Except it’s a retail establishment that has two branches kept separate for legal reasons.
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The invaluable Mashable has the full story here. The @MichelleObama feed is paid for and run by the Obama/Biden political campaign machinery. That’s why it was so active during the summer and fall, as it exhorted everybody to get out and vote, and in general pushed the fortunes of the incumbent presidential ticket. It’s an overtly political use of social media.
The first lady’s Pinterest site is run the same way. Most of those photos of her and her family, and favorite recipes (grilled peaches with yogurt and pistachios?), and exhortations about “why we vote” were put up by campaign staff.
Mrs. Obama’s new @FLOTUS handle reflects her official White House duties, however. It’s run by people from her office who are executive branch (and hence official US government) employees.
Legally speaking, @FLOTUS tweets will have to be stuff that deals with her official duties and the nation as a whole, as opposed to President Obama’s political fortunes. Thus on Thursday she tweeted “Join me and Barack for #MLK Day of Service” after thanking everyone for sending birthday wishes.
Hmm. @FLOTUS has sent three tweets, and it’s got more than 78,000 followers. That’s a pretty good tweet-to-listener ratio.
Most of this social media stuff is done by staff, of course. The few that she sends herself are supposed to be signed “-mo.”
Is the White House actually good at social media? We think that question can be answered definitively only by someone more versed in the dark electronic arts than we are. But from our point of view, it's a pretty shrewd operator. Take the White House petition site. You can put up a petition on anything, and if it reaches a certain signature level in a certain period of time, the White House will respond with its point of view.
Most of the coverage of this “We the People” effort has focused on the weird stuff: petitions for Texas to secede, to deport CNN's Piers Morgan, and so forth. And responding to them has to be a pain for staff. Mother Jones has a piece on Friday in which anonymous staffers gripe about having to spend time actually writing about why the US won’t build a Death Star, and things like that.
But to us, “We the People” really is a clever technique for harvesting e-mail addresses. When creating an account to sign stuff, you can check whether you want to receive missives from the White House. Most of the petitions are in fact about real policy – the need for more or less gun control, for instance. What the White House may get out of this is a continually growing list of voter contact information segmented by policy interest. To push the president’s new gun policies, for instance, they may send targeted e-mails to pro-control addresses, urging them to contact Congress.
We think this because media organizations do the same thing with interactive questionnaires and quizzes. We figure out who’s interested in what kind of stories and we direct those subjects their way.
Surprised? Don’t be. Building brand loyalty – everybody’s got whole new ways of approaching this old problem in today’s Internet age.
Is gun control the new gay marriage? Or are the issues more like mirror images of one another?
Both could be categorized as hot-button topics that for years generated more political activism on the right than on the left. Both have also seen a recent shift in public opinion that, in the case of gay marriage, is upending the politics surrounding the issue, and in the case of gun control, has the potential to do so.
But there are big differences between the two, as well. Gun control has been around as an issue much longer than gay marriage, and public opinion on it has waxed and waned – with support often spiking after a high-profile shooting, only to fall again. Moreover, the long-term trend on gun control, unlike gay marriage, has been a rise in opposition. As recently as April, the Pew Research Center put out a report noting the divergent trends on the two issues, noting that "on gun control, Americans have become more conservative; on gay marriage, Americans have become more liberal."
Still, gun-control proponents including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been arguing vociferously that the issue is not nearly the political loser that Democrats have for years assumed it to be. And the dramatic change that's been occurring when it comes to public opinion on gay marriage – pulling politicians along with it – offers an intriguing model as to where the politics surrounding the gun issue could potentially be headed.
Let's look first at gay marriage. As recently as 2004, President George W. Bush's campaign was able to use it as a "wedge issue" to drive up turnout among conservatives, helping him win reelection. That year, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while just 31 percent favored it. Four years later, in 2008, those numbers had shifted – though the majority was still in opposition, with 51 percent opposing, and 38 percent in favor.
By 2012, however, it was a completely different story: In July, Pew found just 41 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while a plurality of 48 percent favored it. Some of that shift was driven by generational changes, since young people tend to be more broadly in favor of gay marriage (though support has gone up among all age groups). The bigger change, though, was demographic: The electorate has become more Democratic, more urban, more educated, less religious, and less white – and the politics surrounding many cultural issues like gay marriage have shifted accordingly.
So might those same demographic changes portend a similar shift to the left in public opinion on guns?
Well, in recent years, as previously noted, the trend has been in the opposite direction – with support for gun rights growing. In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans said it was more important to control guns, while just 30 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights. By contrast, in the wake of last summer's movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., just 47 percent said controlling guns should be the priority, compared with 46 percent preferring to protect gun rights.
That shifted somewhat in the wake of Newtown. In a survey released this week, Pew found 51 percent saying it was more important to control gun ownership, while 45 percent were on the side of protecting gun rights. That puts support for gun control at its highest point in President Obama's tenure, yet still well below the levels of support found during the Clinton years.
But it's also worth noting that the rise in opposition to gun control has come about almost entirely because of a shift among Republicans, who have become much more strongly in favor of gun rights in recent years, while views among Democrats have remained relatively stable.
And in many cases, those who currently say they favor protecting gun rights actually do support certain gun-control measures, such as universal background checks (favored by 85 percent overall) and preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns (80 percent support). Even more notable, 58 percent of Americans say they would favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
Bottom line: It's too soon to tell where all this is heading. But while the overall trajectory of public opinion on gun control has not resembled the trajectory on gay marriage in recent years, it's also not crazy to think that it might start to, soon.
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre defended his organization’s controversial ad mentioning President Obama’s daughters during an appearance Thursday on NBC’s “Today.”
“It wasn’t about the president’s daughters,” Mr. LaPierre said at the end of a segment otherwise devoted to the NRA’s views on the president’s gun-control proposals. “What it is about is how to keep children safe.”
Well, in a narrow sense that assertion might be a tough sell. As we discussed Wednesday, the 30-second, online ad that’s roiled Washington begins with the words, “Are the president’s kids more important yours?”
It goes on to charge that Mr. Obama is an “elitist hypocrite” because he’s skeptical of the NRA’s proposal for more armed guards at schools, yet Sasha and Malia are themselves protected by armed guards.
It ends with a graphic of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, and NBC’s David Gregory protected by two armed guys in SWAT gear.
“Protection for their kids and gun-free zones for ours,” it intones.
However, there is a longer cut of this ad that surrounds the presidential-children reference with more material, so maybe LaPierre was talking about that.
This 4-1/2-minute version starts by talking about how banks, the White House, and Capitol Hill are all protected by armed guards. Then it expends quite a bit of time on media folks decrying the NRA’s armed-guard-in-every-school proposal. At one point, somebody even charges the group is on “Planet Bizarro.”
Then it abruptly switches tone. “The media speaks for elites. America speaks for itself,” flashes on-screen. Then it begins referring to a number of state programs that finance and place school guards.
The daughters appear at about the three-minute mark. The ad references a story from the conservative website Breitbart.com that asserts that Mr. Gregory’s children go to a school with armed guards. (Gregory has drawn the NRA’s ire for what it deems his antigun questioning.) Then the ad says the school that Obama’s daughters attend has 11 armed guards.
The word “HYPOCRITES” then appears on-screen.
We’ve got a couple of comments about all this, unsurprisingly. The first is that the NRA is trying to back away from the president’s daughters thing without having to actually appear to be retreating. The second is that the real ire they express is in the word “elites.” They have probably poll-tested and found that this word raises emotions among many gun owners and causes them to give the organization more money and political support.
Third, it looks like the presidential daughters part of the ad is based on wrong information.
It’s true that the Secret Service protects the president’s family. That’s US law, due to the fact that first families are the subject of constant, specific, credible death threats.
But the president’s daughters go to Sidwell Friends in upper northwest Washington, and there are not 11 armed guards there. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler proves this pretty conclusively Thursday in his column.
The school has 11 people in its security department. None of them carry weapons, a top school official told Mr. Kessler.
However, by bringing as much attention as it can to the armed-guards-in-school issue, the NRA may be crazy like a fox. That is because polls show it is popular with the US public.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 55 percent of respondents approved of the idea of placing an armed guard in every US school. Asked to identify the best way to combat armed violence in schools, 43 percent chose the option of more gun control, while 41 percent picked the armed-guard option.
The threat by congressional Republicans not to raise the debt ceiling – possibly allowing the United States to go into default – doesn't seem to be scaring President Obama, at least based on his ongoing refusal to negotiate on the matter.
But it is clearly scaring many members of their own party.
With the US likely to hit the limit on its borrowing authority as early as mid-February, more and more Republicans are publicly beseeching their party to drop the game of chicken – calling it both bad policy and bad politics – and focus instead on other, less-risky opportunities to push for spending cuts.
As the GOP begins a three-day retreat Wednesday to plot out legislative strategy, The Wall Street Journal reports that party leaders have grown "anxious" about the debt-ceiling standoff, writing that some members are worried "about the economic impact of the government's possibly missing some payments."
More important, Republican leaders are facing growing pressure from traditional allies outside of Congress, many of whom clearly view the fight as damaging for the country and suicidal for the party. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have been urging Republicans to back down on the debt ceiling for weeks now. As The New York Times's Jackie Calmes reports, it's creating an unusual shifting of alliances, with the White House asking business leaders directly to lobby Republicans on the matter. The piece quotes David Cote, the Republican CEO of Honeywell, as saying: "I'm agreeing with the president – you should not be using the debt limit as a bargaining chip when it comes to how you run the country."
Likewise, Tuesday, The Financial Times's Stephanie Kirchgaessner reported that the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity – backed by the billionaire Koch brothers – also came out in favor of raising the debt ceiling, with a sharp warning that Republicans were losing the messaging battle. Tim Phillips, president of AFP told the paper: "We're saying calibrate your message. Focus on overspending instead of long-term debt."
And the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader editorial page called the debt ceiling the "right fight [at the] wrong time," writing: "The trouble with forcing that standoff is that Republicans cannot win it. Obama will stand firm, and they will have to flinch or shut down the government. Either way, Obama wins and Republicans lose more credibility, which makes it harder to force a showdown on spending on more favorable ground in the future."
The rapidly multiplying calls from conservative groups for the GOP to back down and pick a different fight may have been influenced in part by comments Tuesday from the head of a top credit-rating firm that a repeat of 2011's standoff would lead to the US rating being placed under review, with a "material risk" of being downgraded.
Politically, there are clear indications Republicans are already losing the PR war, with polls showing that the public is broadly siding with the president's position. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 58 percent of Americans believe that the debt ceiling should be handled separately from the debate over spending cuts, while only 36 percent favor linking the two, as House Speaker John Boehner has demanded. (Mr. Boehner has called for a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in increased borrowing authority.) And only 22 percent said they'd be willing to let the government default on its debt or have the government partially shut down if an agreement can't be reached.
If party leaders haven't already figured out an escape hatch from this mess, we'd imagine they're looking for one now.
Is it wrong for the National Rifle Association to drag President Obama’s daughters into the gun-control fight? That question comes up because the big gun-rights lobby group issued an ad this week that brings up Sasha and Malia and their (armed) Secret Service protection as an example of how Mr. Obama is a “hypocrite” on guns.
The 30-second ad is not subtle. It starts with a generic shot of kids playing and the quick statement, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?”
It goes on to question why Obama is skeptical about armed guards at schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools. Then it segues briefly into fiscal issues – saying that the president demands the rich pay their “fair share of taxes” – before shifting back to its kicker, “He is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”
“Protection for their kids and gun-free zones for ours,” it concludes, after a quick shot of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, gun-control advocate Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and David Gregory of NBC News, protected by a couple of armed guys in SWAT outfits.
(Mr. Gregory is in there due to a show where he questioned the need for high-capacity ammo magazines and pushed the limits of D.C. law to display one.)
We’d say this is a polarizing ad that won’t change any minds or votes. What it will do is inflame opponents, while perhaps rallying supporters to the NRA’s side and winning donations at a time when some gun owners are worried about possible upcoming government actions.
Actually, “inflame opponents” might be underplaying it. “Make them apoplectic” might be more accurate. As the respected Ron Fournier of National Journal writes Wednesday, “The ad is indisputably misleading, and is arguably a dangerous appeal to the base instincts of gun-rights activists.”
There’s a good reason the president’s family has armed protection, after all: Unlike most people in America, they are the subject of constant and credible death threats. Their protection consists not of an armed school guard but highly trained teams of agents who practice constantly and know when to act and, perhaps more important, when not to react.
As maverick conservative David Frum points out in The Daily Beast, the NRA’s guard-in-every-school idea would require about 150,000 armed guards to protect 75 million students for 200 days a year. It is easy to envision the mistakes that could occur just because of the scale of this coverage and the fact that these guards would not be Secret Service-level trained.
Plus, schools are far from the only place where mass shootings occur.
“Second: even if the idea were a good one, the NRA’s sneering references to the president’s family are beyond the pale,” Mr. Frum writes.
Obama and his family have long been charged with “uppityism,” says Frum, meaning the NRA’s ad verges on using racially coded language.
“This latest attack ad looks to many like only one more attempt to enflame an ancient American wound,” according to Frum.
The NRA has said it has gained 250,000 more members in recent weeks as Washington has discussed new gun-control measures, and this new ad may be aimed more at keeping that rolling than at actually affecting policy. On the NRA’s website, the new ad is surrounded by bids to “sign up to stand and fight” and “sign up for the latest updates here.”
This is standard Washington procedure for many big interest groups: Take advantage of controversy to keep the group itself as big and wealthy as possible.
President Obama and Speaker John Boehner on Monday laid out sharply opposing visions of how to resolve the looming crisis over the national debt ceiling – and each claims public supports for his own line in the sand.
So, who has a better fix on the public mood?
On the policy dispute, polls indicate the public now favors Mr. Obama's call for a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction over the Boehner principle of matching spending cuts to every dollar increase in the debt limit.
But there's more. Ever since the fiscal-cliff debacle in 2011, public opinion has swung strongly in favor of compromise. Regardless of the policy outcomes they prefer, Americans are wary of hardline positions and want their leaders to negotiate and compromise.
Americans are now more worried about the federal budget deficit and “government dysfunction” than they are about unemployment, according to a Gallup poll released Monday.
Since 2009, the top two responses to Gallup’s (open-ended) question, “what do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?,” have been the economy and unemployment.
While “the economy in general” still ranks No. 1 (21 percent), the federal budget deficit (20 percent) and dissatisfaction with government (18 percent) edged unemployment (16 percent) out of the top two slots.
“Debt and dissatisfaction with government are the new unemployment,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J.
Dissatisfaction with government hasn’t ranked this high in Gallup polling since the Watergate era in 1974. As divided as Americans are on debt and deficit policy, they still expect their leaders to compromise.
The 2011 debt-limit standoff, resolved at the 11th hour after Democrats agreed to Boehner's demands to match every dollar of a higher debt limit with a dollar of spending cuts, rattled the US economy and drew the first-ever downgrade of the US credit rating.
In the run-up to negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of 2012, two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats wanted both sides to compromise equally to avoid some $600 billion in tax hikes and automatic spending cuts then set to take hold Jan. 1, polls found.
But neither the president nor Mr. Boehner are talking compromise in advance of the latest debt-limit crisis, expected as early as mid-February.
In a press conference Monday, the president said he will not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit, period, but that he would be willing to discuss in a separate context “a balanced approach” to deficit reduction.
Boehner restated his own line in the sand. “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time,” he said in a statement after the White House press conference.
However, polls now back the president’s claim that most Americans want a “balanced approach” to cutting deficits – that is, one that includes tax hikes as well as spending cuts. Support for the Republican view – that deficits should be reduced only or mostly by spending cuts – has dropped 10 percentage points since 2011, according to a Gallup poll released after November elections. A balanced approach is now preferred by 45 percent of Americans, compared with 40 percent favoring only or mostly spending cuts, the poll reports.
Moreover, Obama has consistently received higher approval ratings than Republican leaders for his handling of debt and deficit negotiations. Most Americans blamed congressional Republicans (81 percent) more than the White House (67 percent) for the 2011 debt-limit debacle.
While Americans are lukewarm about the December 2012 tax-hike deal to avert the fiscal cliff, 48 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the negotiations, compared with 19 percent approval for GOP leaders, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Still, asked Monday who the public would blame if a fiscal impasse ends in a government shutdown, Obama said: "I suspect that the American people would blame all of Washington for not being able to get its act together.”
At his news conference Monday President Obama said he’s considering using his executive powers to order up some new gun-control measures. What sorts of things could he do on the gun issue on his own?
Well, he won’t be instituting sweeping edicts such as a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. Those would require congressional legislation, which he’s also vowed to push for. What Mr. Obama can do is issue executive orders based on his constitutional authority or existing statutes. Generally, this sort of executive action deals with government officials or agencies, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the subject.
Executive orders “usually affect private individuals only indirectly,” according to CRS.
Thus one thing Obama might do is tighten the existing background check system meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, according to a list of possible executive actions compiled by the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP).
Obama could penalize states that don’t provide data on disqualified gun purchasers to the federal government, for instance. He could order federal agencies themselves to do a better job of telling the FBI about individuals that by law may not be qualified to own firearms. He could direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to conduct background checks on the employees of federally licensed gun dealers as part of its existing audit program.
The president might have the power to require broader reporting of multiple sales of assault rifles to particular individuals, according to CAP. He could also order the FBI to absorb the ATF. “In recent years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has become a beleaguered agency that is unable to adequately fulfill its mission to oversee and enforce federal firearms laws,” claims the CAP.
Other actions the president might take include further limits on gun imports, and increased funding for research into the nature and effects of gun violence.
The reasons the White House might see the executive action route as attractive are obvious. Congressional action is uncertain, and there is substantial opposition, even among some Democrats, to banning whole weapon classes such as assault rifles. Executive action could allow Obama to trumpet some progress on gun control at a time when the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., are high in public thought. Yet such action would require little political capital on his part and would not distract from his efforts on something voters still say is their top priority – keeping the economy on track.
“The Obama administration better tread lightly on the issue of using Executive Orders to implement gun control measures,” tweeted Senator Graham earlier this month.
Rep. Steve Stockman (R) of Texas has gone even further. In a statement Monday, Representative Stockman called Obama’s possible moves “an unconstitutional and unconscionable attack on the very founding principles of this republic” and threatened to file articles of impeachment to stop the actions.
If President Obama and congressional Democrats are going to make headway on the gun violence proposals Vice President Joe Biden is set to deliver to the president on Tuesday, their strategy will probably look a lot like gun-owning Rep. Mike Thompson – and move with the energy and purpose of political cage fighter Rahm Emanuel.
“Federal law prohibits me from having more than three shells in my shotgun,” Thompson said Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “So federal law provides more protection for the ducks than it does” for people, he said, referring to ammunition magazines that can hold 30 or more bullets.
Thompson, chairman of a Democratic committee charged with making recommendations for new “gun violence prevention” measures (Democrats want no part of being pro-“gun control”), is emblematic of the central plank of Democrats’ strategic approach to gun control: put on a friendly face.
Both Thompson and Mr. Biden, the leader of the president’s own task force, are lifelong gun owners who are quick to point out that no, the federal government is absolutely not coming to seize your arms.
“We’re on a little different footing than ever before on this subject,” said Thompson, referring to a 2008 US Supreme Court’s ruling affirming Americans’ ability to possess guns. “American citizens have a right to own firearms. So the idea that one side believes that we should take all the guns, it’s not part of the discussion. And the other side thinks we are trying to get all the guns, that’s not either.”
But a genteel sales pitch will get you only so far.
That’s where Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former White House chief of staff, comes in. Emanuel is a legislative veteran, the point man for President Bill Clinton’s successful gun legislation in the mid-1990s and the man who put the kibosh on a potential battle over guns in Obama’s first term.
This time around, Emanuel, who spoke at CAP with Thompson, says Democrats need to take a half-dozen discrete steps to succeed.
First, they need to frame the changes they seek – whether background checks on all gun sales or a limit on the sale of assault weapons – as “all about criminal access” to firearms, Emanuel said Monday. “It’s not about gun control; it’s about criminal access to guns. That changes the debate.”
Next, Democrats need to take a page out of Mr. Clinton’s playbook and keep “the police chief and the law enforcement community front and center.” Highlighting law enforcement support for the plan, as Clinton did in 1994, helped remove the issue from the partisan terrain of gun rights versus gun control and placed it into an argument about policy and community safety.
Third, Emanuel emphasized that Democrats should make sure Americans get a good look at assault weapons and their associated bullet magazines, restrictions on which are likely to be the most controversial piece of the White House’s policy recommendations.
There’s “a difference between the magazine that holds 10 [bullets] and magazine that holds 20 or 30,” Emanuel said. And there’s “a lot of different type of damage done” with the latter.
Then, Emanuel’s puzzle involves Democrats sticking up for one another come election season: They need to be willing to go to the wall for members in districts with more difficult gun politics.
“If the person is going to take the vote,” he said, reflecting on Democratic losses in the 1994 congressional elections that many attribute to voting for the president’s assault weapons ban, “don’t walk away from them come the political season.”
Moreover, the president would be wise to act on smaller but still controversial issues through executive order when possible, Emanuel advised. Obama has said he will weigh which issues could be handled through executive decisionmaking, a prospect that has infuriated congressional Republicans who believe the president too-frequently sidesteps Capitol Hill’s authority.
“Push the limit on [executive action],” Emanuel said. “Clear the table, man. Don’t allow a side issue to derail these things. [The eventual legislation] is going to be perilous enough.”
With that strategy in place, Democrats should put Republicans into a position similar to that of the fiscal cliff fight: a Senate-passed bill on their doorstep and the president using his political moxie to turn up the heat.
“Get it done [in the Senate] and then clear the decks and put the ultimate pressure on the House,” Emanuel said. “Put the burner up.”
Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled Tuesday to give his recommendations to President Obama on how to help alleviate gun violence in the United States.
While Mr. Obama promised at his press conference on Monday to present the details of Mr. Biden’s recommendations later this week, here are the top five proposals from liberal interest groups (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Center for American Progress) and lawmakers closely aligned with the White House that shed light on what the Obama administration may push for at the outset of his second term.
1. Universal background checks
This first proposal is one that Democrats believe has widespread support, even among Republican lawmakers: If you buy a gun, no matter who it’s from, you have to pass a background check.
Currently, private sellers make up about 40 percent of weapon transfers in the US every year. What’s known in some places as the “gun show loophole” means that those barred from buying guns by other statutes can effectively circumvent those laws by obtaining a weapon from a private weapons dealer.
“When you’ve got 40 percent of the guns that are going out [not receiving background checks], that’s not a loophole. That’s an exception,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said at an event Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “Shutting that exemption... is essential.”
This recommendation requires strong legislative language to require states to contribute information toward national databases used for assessing whether an individual should be allowed to purchase a weapon. At present, 10 states have submitted a grand total of zero names to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and 18 other states have submitted fewer than 100, according to CAP.
2. Restrict the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines
If background checks enjoy the most consensus, what to do about restricting access to assault weapons is perhaps the most controversial.
The Brady Campaign, one of the most outspoken advocates for increased gun control, gives only a single broad sentence to the subject in its policy recommendations: “Limit the availability of military-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines that are designed for mass killing.”
But others have been a bit more specific at reviving a policy created under President Bill Clinton but allowed to lapse under President George W. Bush.
CAP endorsed a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California that would halt the “sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” In other words, it would freeze ownership of weapons like that used in the Newtown, Conn., massacre at its current level. Feinstein and other Democratic Senators plan to introduce legislation to this effect early in the new session of Congress.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut told reporters on Monday that she was introducing legislation to offer a $1,000, refundable tax credit for each of the next two years to encourage owners of assault weapons to turn them in to local authorities.
But reducing access to guns of any kind raises the hackles of conservative groups like the National Rifle Association, whose head vowed over the weekend that liberals simply don’t have the votes for such an assault weapons restriction.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a freshman, told PBS’ Judy Woodruff that he would fight any such legislation.
“I intend to help lead the fight to stop Senator Dianne Feinstein's bill to pass aggressive gun control,” Senator Cruz said last week. “It's misguided policy. If you look at the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception, they have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates. If you look at the jurisdictions that most vigorously protect our right to keep and bear arms, almost without exception, they have the lowest crime rates and the lowest murder rates.”
3. Get better gun data
In addition to making sure dangerous or violent Americans can’t get their hands on weapons, and potentially limiting access to assault weapons, the next most frequent complaint is about a simple thing: information.
Liberal lawmakers say the gun lobby’s innate fear of the federal government collecting data about guns or gun users manifests itself in restrictions on research into weapons and their impact on society.
Among the restrictions Democrats would like to strike down are limits on the use of so-called “trace data,” which show the initial sale of a weapon, and requirements that federal agencies destroy completed background checks within a day, saying the checks would allow authorities to pinpoint “straw purchasers” who help criminals circumvent gun laws.
Democrats would also like to allow the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health free reign to study public health and safety issues relating to firearms.
Regarding the CDC and NIH, there is “nothing legally that says you can’t collect this data, but [fear of losing funding] has over these years had a very chilling effect” on investigation of the subject, said Representative DeLauro said. “These agencies are limited in the funding that they receive, so if they’re going to be engaged in something that’s controversial that’s [potentially] going to lead to precluding resources and funds that they may have, they may not want to move in that direction.”
4. Put ATF under jurisdiction of the FBI
Perhaps the structure of government is impeding the ability of federal agents to pursue violent criminals and gun crimes. CAP proposes moving the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – which has gone without a permanent head for over two years as Republicans and the NRA criticize the potential director as insufficiently pro-gun – under the FBI.
“For reasons such as lack of funding, limitations on its activities including in appropriations riders, and a leadership vacuum,” CAP’s recommendations read, “the bureau is simply incapable of functioning properly as a standalone agency in its current state.”
Many groups have pointed out that the ATF has been prevented from creating a digital database of gun records, which gun advocates have decried as a breach of privacy and a stepping stone toward the confiscation of guns. Instead, the bureau makes due with an antiquated paper system.
5. Emphasize prosecutions of gun violations
Liberals want gun violations to be a serious enforcement priority for federal prosecutors around the country and advocate elevating gun trafficking to a federal crime.
“The absence of any federal law defining gun trafficking in this country is shocking,” wrote Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York in a recent op-ed about her legislation that would raise gun trafficking to the level of federal prosecution. “We have thousands of laws, but effectively none of them are directly focused on preventing someone from Virginia from driving to New York City, parking their car in a parking lot, and selling hundreds of firearms out of the back of their trunk to criminals.”
Such legislation would impose harsher penalties on not only the recipients of trafficked weapons but on buyers and gun dealers who don’t comply with federal laws. Without legislation, however, liberals believe that instructing district attorneys to emphasize gun prosecutions would help prevent violence in the future.
6. What isn’t included?
What’s yet to be seen are concrete proposals from the two liberal groups on two frequently mentioned areas of concern: how to improve access to mental health care or deal with what those on both the left and right agree is a dangerous cultural fascination with violence as exemplified by violent movies and videogames. As part of his assignment to draw up recommendations on gun violence, Biden convened meetings with both health professionals and members of the entertainment industry.
CAP offered no proposals to address either issue. The Brady Campaign only submitted a single broad thought on the matter: “We should provide legal mechanisms to prevent those dangerously mentally ill who present the most significant risk from possessing guns, while carefully protecting the rights of those who are mentally ill but do not pose a risk.”
DeLauro said that the mental health component had a simple solution: money.
Without funding for state or national efforts to provide greater access to mental health-care, DeLauro said, all the talk will be just that – talk.
“It has been a struggle every single year to increase the funding,” for federal agencies overseeing mental health, said DeLauro, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee, which oversees such spending. “If you’re not going to provide the resources ... you can say that we’re going to focus in these areas, but without the resources it is hollow.”
President Obama has not budged from his stark line in the sand: When it comes to the debt ceiling, he will not negotiate. Period.
In a press conference Monday, he reiterated this position, stating: "Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly and pay America's bills. Or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy."
Mr. Obama made clear – as he did during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis – that raising the debt ceiling "does not authorize more spending; it simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to." The difference this time around, however, is that while Obama says he's ready to have a "vigorous debate" on debt reduction, he also says that debate must be separate from Congress taking action on the debt ceiling. And if Republicans decide to block such an action, the consequences will be all on them.
The problem, of course, is that Republicans are taking an equally firm stand. House Speaker John Boehner has vowed to raise the debt ceiling – which could hit its limit as early as mid-February – only if he gets dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. Mr. Boehner reiterated this position in a statement released after the president's press conference, which read: “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.”
No one knows how this crisis will unfold, of course, but here's our best guess: Republicans will eventually blink.
In fact, we believe Obama pretty much secured this outcome from the moment he declared that he simply would not negotiate on the matter.
True, it's a potentially risky position to take – since, if Republicans don't back down, the president will either have to go back on his pledge or allow what he himself has described as a catastrophic economic event to take place.
And it is, of course, a far less conciliatory approach than the one the president took back in 2011. That time around, Obama was already in the middle of a tough reelection campaign, and the economy was more fragile. He couldn't risk even appearing willing to risk a default. As a result, Obama and Boehner spent months trying to work out a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction, which ultimately imploded.
But the president has clearly learned some lessons from the whole ugly episode – which resulted in a credit downgrade for the United States – and the follow-up "fiscal cliff" negotiations that took place last month. One is that a grand bargain may simply be impossible right now, given the divisions between the parties. While that doesn't mean those negotiations should be shelved, it doesn't necessarily make sense to keep tying them to economic deadlines that create crises.
The other is that, while these self-created crises have been politically damaging to both sides, they have been far worse for the GOP. A Washington Post poll taken right after the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle found, for example, that while 67 percent of Americans said they had little or no confidence in Obama when it came to making the right decisions for the country's economic future, an astonishing 81 percent had little or no confidence in congressional Republicans.
Current polling suggests that Americans are already inclined to blame Republicans more than Democrats for whatever happens with this latest debt-ceiling fight. And on the heels of a reelection victory in which Obama's economic vision received public validation, the president appears to be betting that, for all their bluster, Republicans won't in the end be willing to risk an actual default. The economic and political consequences of a default could be devastating.
That hasn't stopped GOP members from hitting the airwaves and publicly threatening to shut down the government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. On Monday, Politico reported that "more than half" of Republicans are currently prepared to allow default, with Republican leaders warning privately that the White House "doesn't understand how hard it will be to talk restive conservatives off the fiscal ledge."
But in many ways, it all feels like a big bluff. Tellingly, the GOP leadership isn't out there advocating default – and many prominent Republicans have said they think it would be a mistake. The business community – including typical GOP allies like the Chamber of Commerce – is strongly opposed.
As Slate's William Saletan wrote last week, parsing statements by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell about the "leverage" his party holds: "That isn’t how you talk when you have leverage. It’s how you talk when you know your leverage is fake. Republicans don't have enough members willing to tank our credit rating or shut down the government. They know it would be too painful."
The other point to keep in mind about all this is that the debt ceiling isn't the only card Republicans have to play. There is still the package of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, known as the sequester, scheduled to hit in coming months, as well as the need to reauthorize the stopgap spending measure currently funding the government. The latter could offer Republicans another opportunity to shut down the government, as they've been threatening, without risking a credit default and the potential meltdown of the global economy.
And perhaps that's the real motive behind all these Republican debt-ceiling threats. In comparison to the prospect of default on the debt, a more straightforward government shutdown, à la 1995, seems practically tame.