WASHINGTON – Six months after his triumphant re-election, President Barack Obama has run into the hard reality of the modern presidency.
The cheering crowds that helped vault him into a second term in the White House mean little, if anything, back in Washington. A close look at his most recent defeat – a series of proposals intended to curb gun violence – shows that election popularity does not automatically translate into legislative success. Nor do campaign-like efforts to win a vote in Congress. Obama put more effort into the proposals than he has most issues, but he still suffered one of his biggest legislative defeats.
The defeat illustrates a key truth: For all their power, presidents rarely succeed in manipulating votes on Capitol Hill. If anything, their abilities to twist arms have grown even more limited in recent years. Strained budgets leave them no extra money or pet projects to offer lawmakers in return for votes. And Obama’s detached personality and short history in Washington make him even less likely to wheel and deal with lawmakers.
“There’s not much presidents can do to change votes. It’s mostly a myth,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “It’s never been that way and it’s less so now.”
His election victory still fresh in his mind, Obama thought he had a clear path to bend Congress to his will after the horror of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December. His goal: the first significant new controls on guns in a generation.
He tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead a task force to examine gun laws. Biden spent a month speaking to more than 200 organizations on all sides of the issue, from crime victims to religious leaders, law enforcement organizations to gun manufacturers.
Obama unveiled his sweeping package of executive actions and proposed legislation in January. He immediately began trying to sell it.
Obama and Biden gave more than 30 speeches, interviews and online chats, oftentimes with families of gun victims at their side.
First lady Michelle Obama made a rare foray into the debate by delivering an emotional speech in her hometown of Chicago.
Obama’s political organization, Organizing for Action, held dozens of events.
Obama flew Newtown families to Washington to lobby senators and turned over his radio address for the first time to the parents of a slain child.
He did not win support for a proposal to renew a ban on assault weapons or to limit ammunition in clips. But support for greater background checks for gun purchases topped 90 percent in the polls. If it were an election with voters choosing whether to pass background checks, Obama would have won a landslide.
But it was not an either-or choice. Congress could choose to do nothing.
In March and April, Obama and Biden spoke to nearly 30 senators in 45 meetings or phone calls, according to the White House.
It wasn’t enough.
Last month, the Democrat-controlled Senate defeated all significant gun proposals sought by Obama after some lawmakers bristled at being pushed by the president.
Obama, along with gun control advocates, insist they’ll try again, at least for the proposal to expand background checks to private and Internet sales.
“The president worked really hard on this issue,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “He put political capital on the line. He made it one of his centerpieces of his State of the Union address and he went all around the country to try and rally support.”
So what happened?
For one, Obama and his allies often staged events in states that had been sites of mass shootings such as Illinois, Connecticut or Virginia, instead of states where senators were wavering on the issue.
For another, his high-profile push may have cost as many votes as it won, given how polarizing modern presidents have become.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of four Republicans who voted for expanded background checks, said a better model of leadership would be Obama’s role on the proposed rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws. On that, Obama has expressed support but stayed out of the way to let members of Congress negotiate among themselves. “I think his role has been very appropriate, exactly appropriate,” he said of Obama’s approach on immigration.
Finally, Obama might have relied more on personal talks with senators and less on the bully pulpit, presidential scholars said.
“As soon as Obama jumps in, it makes it hard for Republicans to get behind it,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York at Cortland who has written extensively on gun control. “Obama could have done more on the inside game.”