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Michael A. Cohen

Behind Obama’s tears, a bold political message

President Obama spoke at the White House on Tuesday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

On Tuesday, the president of the United States stood in the East Room of the White House and cried.

This wasn’t a moistening of the eyes; Obama didn’t get choked up. Tears streamed down his face as he announced new gun control measures and evoked the memory of the more than 20 first-graders killed in Sandy Hook, Conn., three years ago.

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said as he unsuccessfully fought back tears and delivered one of the most powerful and emotionally packed speeches of his presidency.

Not surprisingly, in our polarized political environment, Obama’s emotional vulnerability became fodder for his right-wing critics. Just when you think American politics can’t reach any lower depths, the president being overcome by the thought of murdered children became yet another opportunity to attack him.

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At Fox News, one pundit obnoxiously suggested that the president had brought a raw onion with him to induce tears. David Brody, at the Christian Broadcasting Network tweeted the question, “Was he crying over guns or that his executive order pen ran out of ink? #cryboma” (Brody later deleted the tweet and apologized).

Even those Republicans not intent to mock the president’s tears were largely dismissive. Mitch McConnell derided the president’s speech as “President Obama’s Political Gun Control Announcement.” Speaker Paul Ryan complained that Obama should be focused more on ISIS than on “how we can intimidate and frustrate the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens,” even though more Americans are killed on a single day by guns than have ever been killed by ISIS. Jeb Bush said Obama “has proved again why he will go down as one of the most liberal and divisive presidents in the history of our nation,” which is an odd claim considering that the proposals he unveiled are broadly popular.

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Lost in the response to Obama’s tears was his larger political message. While the executive actions that Obama announced —in particular, a tighter requirement on gun sellers to conduct background checks — are important, they are unlikely to make a huge dent in gun violence. That would require a Congress focused on something other than doing the NRA’s bidding.

But the bigger impact of Obama’s words is in the political shift that it represents. As he alternated between making the clear, logical case for reform and an emotional case for change, Obama offered as passionate an argument for reforming American gun laws as we’ve ever heard from an American president, or even an American politician. That is an enormous shift. Not long ago, Democrats would have been sooner photographed duck hunting than they would have even talked about gun control. It was a political third rail. Those days are far behind us. Now Democrats seemingly leap at the opportunity to address the issue.

But that political transformation will mean nothing as long as politicians don’t feel the bite. As Obama made clear yesterday, things won’t change until the politicians who side with the small minority of gun-rights absolutists over the strong majority of Americans who favor sensible gun control start to pay a price for that position.

“The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections,” said Obama. “And if you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you.”

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That’s unlikely to happen overnight. But the president’s advocacy on this issue — and that of his party — significantly increases the possibility. Unfortunately, what we do know is that until the nation’s politics catch up to public opinion on guns, the scourge of this nation’s gun violence will continue to cause the shedding of tears by many more Americans than just the president.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.