The spirit of public comity that followed last week’s mass murder of first-graders in Newtown, Conn., ended today with a pair of dueling news conferences by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner in Washington.
While both men had previously said the national trauma of seeing 26 people gunned down in the Sandy Hook Elementary School was enough to put politics in its place, each quickly fell back into the type of political rhetoric that preceded the shooting.
Obama tip-toed up to the line during his speech Sunday in Newtown during an interfaith vigil called to remember the victims.
“Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children - all of them - safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?” the president asked. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
Obama remained generic as he threw down the challenge to Congress, even though he had avoided pushing any sort of gun control measure himself during his first term.
“In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens - from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators - in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said. “Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
Today, the president began to add some meat to those bare bones, saying he was putting Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a task force to address gun control, educational, and mental health questions raised by the Newtown killings. He said he wanted recommendations in a month, and for the House and Senate to vote on them promptly.
“The good news is there’s already a growing consensus for us to build from,” Obama said as he spoke from the White House Briefing Room, named for James Brady, the press secretary who was wounded by gunshots in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.
The president even ticked off a list.
“A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases, so that criminals can’t take advantage of legal loopholes to buy a gun from somebody who won’t take the responsibility of doing a background check at all,” he said.
But then Obama made his first overtly political comment of the post-Newtown period.
“I urge the new Congress to hold votes on these measures next year in a timely manner. And considering Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in six years - the agency that works most closely with state and local law enforcement to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals - I’d suggest that they make this a priority early in the year,” he said.
The nature - and tone - of the comment surely won’t endear him to opponents already uncomfortable after being cornered by growing gun control fervor.
The president’s statement was followed by an unusual period of question-taking, during which the subject immediately pivoted to another hot topic: his “fiscal-cliff” negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner.
Considering that Obama usually dashes away from reporters after such statements - the purpose being to keep the focus on what he said to them and not whatever they may ask him - the decision to allow questions indicated that the president also wanted to talk about the subject he surely knew would come up.
And in his answers that followed, Obama took on a House Republican caucus he only moments earlier had been courting to pass gun control legislation.
His comments came a day after he ceded the public airwaves to Boehner, who announced he was going to have the House vote on a “Plan B” proposal that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone earning less than $1 million a year.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney labeled the deal a nonstarter on Tuesday, noting it could not pass the Democratically controlled Senate.
“At some point, there’s got to be I think a recognition on the part of my Republican friends that - take the deal,” the president said today. “They will be able to claim that they have worked with me over the last two years to reduce the deficit more than any other deficit reduction package; that we will have stabilized it for 10 years. That is a significant achievement for them. They should be proud of it. But they keep on finding ways to say no, as opposed to finding ways to say yes.”
Obama then laid bare a suspicion harbored by many of his supporters and previously enunciated not by him, but surrogates such as Governor Deval Patrick.
“I don’t know how much of that just has to do with - it is very hard for them to say yes to me,” the president declared. “But at some point, they’ve got to take me out of it and think about their voters, and think about what’s best for the country. And if they do that - if they’re not worried about who’s winning and who’s losing, did they score a point on the president, did they extract that last little concession, did they force him to do something he really doesn’t want to do just for the heck of it - and they focus on actually what’s good for the country, I actually think we can get this done.”
Such comments, though, did not sit well with Boehner.
He assembled reporters in the Capitol several hours later and delivered a 50-second rejoinder.
The speaker explained that Plan B would ensure a tax cut for “99.81 percent of the American people,” as opposed to the 100-percent of people who would be affected by tax hikes and government spending cuts that will automatically take effect on Jan. 1 if he and Obama don’t strike a deal.
The speaker said that once the House completes its work on Thursday, “the president will have a decision to make: He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in history.”
Boehner then walked out of the room without taking questions, intent on keeping the focus on what he said and not whatever else the press corps may have wanted to ask him.Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.