WASHINGTON — Tucson. Aurora. Newtown. And now, Boston.
President Obama has repeatedly been forced into the role of comforter-in-chief, traveling to communities traumatized by killings of civilians in random spates of violence.
As the president flies to Boston on Thursday morning to provide consolation in the wake of Monday’s Boston Marathon bomb attack, his ability to respond with healing words will contrast with his own frustrated attempts to respond to gun violence with legislation.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted down a compromise amendment that would have expanded background checks for gun sales, the one real hope of gun control advocates who were seeking a response to the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre.
The president has made gun violence a top priority, but has been unable to use the bully pulpit to convince Congress to go along.
“He’s doing absolutely everything he can to break through, but he’s facing the greatest resistance that any modern era president has confronted,” said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont.
“Can he capture this moment? Yeah,” Nelson added. “Can he make a difference? No. And that’s the sad thing about it. He will touch the hearts, but he won’t move the needle.”
Gun control advocates were downcast on Wednesday, acknowledging changes that seemed within reach weeks ago are now out of of the question until at least after 2014. Proponents, including Obama, are determined to keep the issue alive in the midterm elections.
“The ongoing effort — which is to communicate as vividly as possible the tragedy going on across America — has taken hold, and polling shows that,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who has worked with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group pushing for more gun control. “But what hasn’t taken hold with elected officials – members of Congress — is that if they don’t get on the right side of this issue with voters, they’re going to lose their seat.”
“We’re going to have to go into elections and beat people,” he added. “We’re going to have to demonstrate to elected officials [that] if they won’t do something as basic as background checks, they’re going to pay for it.”
Devine did not put the blame on Obama, saying, “The bully pulpit may not be enough in this instance.” Politicians need to feel threatened from voters, he suggested, not the president.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, will arrive in Boston on Thursday, for 11 a.m. services at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Boston,” Michelle Obama said Wednesday in her first comments about the bombings. “What happened on Monday was a reminder that in times of crisis here in America, we respond with courage and grit and selflessness. That’s exactly what we saw from the people of Boston.”
Without a publicly identified suspect and motive for bombings in Boston, it is still unclear what type of response, if any, the president will mount. Under Obama’s administration and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, the nation has already imposed rafts of security measures and antiterrorism monitoring programs. Obama has dramatically expanded the use of drones to kill terrorists and instigators of terror.
But the use of cooking pots and household batteries to detonate blasts that killed three people and injured more than 170 on Monday only served to illustrate, despite all the countermeasures, how powerless the president is to stem attacks from determined criminals or deranged individuals.
After episodes of gun violence, Obama has had a more obvious focal point for legislative action. Four days after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head while holding a constituent meeting, Obama traveled to the University of Arizona for a memorial service for six killed.
“You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations, to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless,” he said. “Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems.”
After 12 people were killed by a shooter in a theater in Aurora, Colo., Obama gave a nationally televised address, again calling for unity and change.
“I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country, he said.
Some of his most profound remarks, and most direct legislative response, came after the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
“This is our first task, caring for our children,” he said. “It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”
Within weeks, the White House mounted a major legislative push. Vice President Joe Biden formed a task force and came up with a long list of recommendations. Obama placed calls to senators, he gave speeches, he held dinners.
Family members of the victims gave interviews, and descended on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. There never was enough support to give momentum to proponents for an assault weapons ban or limits on magazine capacity. But intense negotiations produced a compromise on background checks that survived an initial filibuster last week.
But in the end the National Rifle Association and allied groups, a handful of Democrats from rural states, and nearly all of the Senate Republicans combined forces to stymie the effort. Shortly after the measure failed in the Senate on Wednesday, Obama went to the Rose Garden at the White House, angry and pleading for help.
“To change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this,” he said. “You’re going to have to send the right people to Washington.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.