Obama's gun reform plans could define his second term
Learning from Reagan? The President will try to harness public opinion as he takes on Congress
BARACK OBAMA has unveiled sweeping gun control proposals in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. They include a ban on military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and armour-piercing bullets along with criminal background checks on all gun buyers.
They are the widest ranging reforms proposed for decades and have aroused controversy in the US. Even before Obama had unveiled them the National Rifle Association had blasted him as an "elitist hypocrite".
While some of the reforms, such as tighter background checks, can be enacted through presidential "executive actions", others – crucially the ban on assault weapons - require Congressional approval, which will prove difficult if not impossible to achieve.
The political challenge of passing legislation explains why Obama has moved so soon after Sandy Hook, says the Washington Post. "Obama is wagering that public opinion has evolved enough after a string of mass shootings to force passage of politically contentious measures that Congress has long stymied."
But the battle to get the proposals into law could be a defining one for the President. "Four days before taking the oath of office [at his re-inauguration], President Obama on Wednesday staked the beginning of his second term on an uphill quest to pass the broadest gun control legislation in a generation," noted the New York Times.
The paper paper makes the point that "the first big push of Mr. Obama's second term... will come on an issue that was not even on his to-do list on Election Day when voters renewed his lease on the presidency".
As the BBC's North America editor Mark Mardell put it, the battle over gun reform "could partly define the mid-term elections in 2014 and possibly the 2016 presidential race as well."
Politico's Glenn Thrush believes it is part of a new strategy from Obama that he describes as "calculated confrontation". Obama has put his pragmatic approach to one side for one of the first times in his presidency and "has framed the gun issue as a moral imperative", says Thrush.
"He can't abide inaction, not after the tearful pledge he made to victims' families. It augurs a more Reaganesque use of the office, a platform for Obama to shape the [political] process through public opinion - employing the presidency's unrivalled 'power to persuade'."
There was evidence of this at yesterday's White House launch of the gun reforms, where Obama was flanked by a group of young children who had written to him expressing concerns about gun crime and the audience included members of the families who lost children at Sandy Hook.
The president did not use the term "gun control" once during his address, and instead referred repeatedly to "gun violence".
"Language in politics can be a powerful thing, shaping perceptions and framing the terms of debate," noted Molly Ball of The Atlantic. "Whether you see these terms as laudably neutral or Orwellian attempts at culture-shaping probably depends on your view of the issues involved."
The size of the task facing Obama quickly became apparent when senior Republicans made their opposition clear. Florida senator Marco Rubio, regarded as a potential presidential candidate, accused Obama of trying "to undermine Americans' constitutional right to bear arms".