Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Perspective

Has Newtown changed Obama?

Can the slaughter of children in a small elementary school in suburban Connecticut have global implications? Can it change not only the gun politics of America, but also the broader political mood in the country?

Can it help transform a cautious president into a bolder one, a calculating man into one of vision and action? Can that president go from a first term full of speeches about great principles to a second one in which he actually takes steps to fulfill at least some of the promise of those speeches?

Barack Obama is a cool customer. Those closest to him will acknowledge it. His supporters frame it as a strength, and in some circumstances it clearly is. But it has also been a weakness. Too often he has been too inclined to do the math, split the difference, be expedient. During his first term this was clear on big issues — on climate, on extending the Bush tax cuts, on Afghanistan and, as we have all too acutely felt again in recent days, on guns.

But Obama is also a father of two girls. The degree to which the horror and the heartbreak of Newtown touched him was palpable, whether it was in his first remarks on Friday or during his extraordinary Sunday night address to the people most affected by the school murders. It was not just the flicking away of tears that illustrated how deeply he was moved. It was the degree to which he set aside — finally — that characteristic Obama caution.

American leaders rarely do what Obama did Sunday night. I don't recall the last time I heard an American president so bluntly state that we were failing our children and our obligations to one another. "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?" he asked. "If we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change."

He did not mention guns. He didn't have to. It was clear that he was saying 300 million guns in circulation is too many. It was clear he was saying that 30,000 gun deaths a year is an abomination. The United States has spent some $3 trillion combating terror since 9/11, and guns at home have killed twice as many Americans as terrorists have killed people worldwide since then. It is not just a national scandal. It is a disease, a fundamental and profound flaw in our national character.

What if Newtown changed Obama for the better in much the way that 9/11 changed Bush for the worse? What if it produced real soul-searching — if only for a moment — and an acknowledgement that the greatest American leaders have been measured and distinguished by how they made us better than we were before? Whether it was the founders initiating our long struggle with the challenges of democracy, Lincoln ending slavery, Roosevelt committing us to helping the weakest among us, or Johnson shepherding through landmark civil rights laws, these men had the courage to say "We can do better." National challenges reveal the true character of both America's presidents and its people.

Obama knows better than anyone that changing our gun laws won't be easy. But he sensed perhaps that the shock of Friday might start, indeed might have already started to color the rest of the political debate in Washington. And maybe — better still — he stopped caring so much about whether it did or not.

For decades, serious efforts at gun control had been a third rail in American politics. Tragedy after tragedy would occur — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora — and nothing would be done. The Supreme Court, wrong as it had been on Dred Scott and Citizens United, would reassert that an anachronistic provision in the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a broad right to gun ownership, and pols would just shrug. The gun lobby was seen as potent and gun owners were seen as key to electoral margins. Every day 30 people died from gunshot wounds — in other words, every day, another Newtown — because what passes for the smart money in that D.C. said doing anything about it would be too hard.

But the thing that has sustained America and helped it flourish is not that we are always right (far from it: our transgressions have regularly rivaled our triumphs), but that we sometimes see we must change. We have a system that contains the seeds of its own reinvention. And our cool, cautious president has seemed to conclude that this was one of those moments.

Of course, it remains to be seen if that will be so. For all the reasons that commonsense change has yet to have come, it will be hard to produce. But one couldn't help but observe a change in the president. Some of it may have had to do with how he has grown on the job. Some of it may have had to do with his solid re-election. Some may have had to do with the fact that his tough negotiating stance with the Republicans seemed to be moving the country toward a deal on the "fiscal cliff."

I repeat: Nothing is assured. Time and again, Obama has been a leadership tease, making a soaring speech and following it up with halfway measures or delays. To the doubters this time, I say: Go watch the speech. Watch Obama. Don't be distracted by relatively minor recent setbacks like the Susan Rice dust-up. After all, in the end, the president wasn't distracted. He stayed focused on the work at hand, on negotiations on the Hill, on making selections for his second-term Cabinet — even as he worked on the gun issue. Obama vowed to put forward concrete proposals in his State of the Union address. "There's already a growing consensus for us to build from," Obama said last week. "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 American support laws requires background checks before all gun purchases."

As far as how that may impact the rest of this world, we shall start to see the consequences fairly soon. Obama is likely to name an experienced, potent national security team that, working with a more confident president, could be an assertive, effective force on the international stage. In fact, expect them to start out actively engaging in the most urgent of the issues of the Middle East, from Syria to Iran to Egypt to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

And last weekend's events may have even more important implications, because at this moment in U.S. history, almost all the greatest national security challenges the country faces are domestic in nature. As historian Paul Kennedy long ago noted, great nations tend to fall from within. Not only do guns kill far more Americans than terrorists ever will, but we are suffering from grievous internal fiscal bleeding and, to date, from a political system that has been sadly dysfunctional. That dysfunction, despite what you may read, has happened before in our history. But then some crisis, some catalyst, some series of developments, produces real leadership — and that's when change and growth and progress and renewal happens.

This could be one of those moments. You will see telling hints as to whether the change is real in the weeks ahead. If the president is able to cut a deal on the fiscal cliff, if he takes meaningful steps toward gun control, and if he moves on the more ambitious elements of his second term-agenda — like immigration reform, promoting investment in education and infrastructure, or shaping a sustainable national energy policy — then you will know that this is a different Obama.

In his address before the Newtown vigil on Sunday evening, the president concluded with a ringing call to action. After a heartbreaking litany of the names of the murdered children, Obama said, "God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory."

That is a tall order. But if you believe as I do that our most basic mission in life is to love our children and that it should inform every action we take, it is also precisely the right star for a head of state or a great nation to steer by.

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy.

© 2012 Foreign Policy

Comments
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well. The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and ...
Published: 05/18/18
Oh, Florida! Without air conditioning we’re a stinky swamp of sweat. With it, we warm the world

Oh, Florida! Without air conditioning we’re a stinky swamp of sweat. With it, we warm the world

As I write this, some workers are disassembling the 24-year-old air conditioning system in my house. They’re clunking and clanking around, tromping up and down my stairs, so they can replace the old system with a new one that presumably wonR...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
PolitiFact: Is Mike Pence right that religion is gaining new life in U.S.?

PolitiFact: Is Mike Pence right that religion is gaining new life in U.S.?

Speaking at a commencement ceremony at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Vice President Mike Pence told the graduates that religion in the United States is going strong."The percentage of Americans who live out their religion on a weekly basis — praying...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Column: Why baby steps toward cheaper drugs are the best we can do

Column: Why baby steps toward cheaper drugs are the best we can do

On the stump, Donald Trump the candidate promised big changes in the way America buys prescription drugs — allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers, and allowing Americans to buy at the prices that Canada ...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
PolitiFact: Can Robert Mueller subpoena Donald Trump? A look at the legal precedents

PolitiFact: Can Robert Mueller subpoena Donald Trump? A look at the legal precedents

President Donald Trump has said he’d "love to speak" to special counsel Robert Mueller but that some of his lawyers advise against it.The latest member of Trump’s legal team, Rudy Giuliani, said Trump is under no obligation to comply with a subpoena ...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/13/18

Column: Moms looking out for daughters who need special medical treatment

Five years ago, shortly after celebrating Mother’s Day, my mom watched as her oldest child was wheeled into brain surgery to undergo a procedure to help cope with the symptoms of early Parkinson’s disease. The operation, known as Deep Brain Stimulati...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/13/18
Column: As the last Rosewood survivor dies, let’s remember our duty to address injustice

Column: As the last Rosewood survivor dies, let’s remember our duty to address injustice

Mary Hall Daniels was a child of 3 when a white mob destroyed her home and the predominantly African-American community of Rosewood in Levy County in 1923. The last survivor of what came to be known as the Rosewood massacre, Mrs. Daniels died on May ...
Published: 05/08/18
Updated: 05/13/18
Perspective: Let’s build a ‘house’ for Kerouac in St. Pete ... (no not that one)

Perspective: Let’s build a ‘house’ for Kerouac in St. Pete ... (no not that one)

Over my writing desk is a pop-art image of Jack Kerouac. He is so handsome. In purple, orange, and shades of green, it shows him in his prime, a typewriter in the corner and his words about the people he loves, the ones who "burn, burn, burn like fab...
Published: 05/07/18
Updated: 05/13/18
Five interesting facts

Five interesting facts

$171.5 millionis how much drug makers spent lobbying the federal government last year, more than any other industry.Just 36%of Republicans last year thought free trade had been good for the United States, down from 57 percent in 2009, according to th...
Published: 05/07/18
Updated: 05/13/18
A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

Another state has joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, bringing electoral reformers closer to their goal of sidestepping the Electoral College to elect presidents by a nationwide popular vote instead. Under the compact, states pledge ...
Published: 05/03/18
Updated: 05/13/18