By Rachel Brody |
The president's emotional cadence of "they deserve a vote" on the controversial issue of gun control may ultimately fall on deaf ears. A vote may come, but the specifics of that vote and the chances for a presidential victory are greatly in question. The rigor of possible restrictions on gun purchases or the type of weapons available is still up for serious negotiation in a divided chamber. There is support for these efforts in the public and in Congress, but the reality of new legislation will only exist with leadership from the president.
The trouble in a polarized nation is that such leadership is complicated.
Presidents can only fight so many political battles at once. Even given the extensive apparatus of the executive branch and the power to act unilaterally, the limits of the president's ability to communicate with the mass public and persuade reluctant members of Congress to act is limited. The president needs to focus his attention on the issues the White House identifies as the most critical. This tactic was not aided last night by pillowing his address with dozens of requests to Congress, many of them the same complex and polarizing issues on which he and the leadership in the Republican Party (and often his own party) have been fighting about for years.
However, the president's strategy in the State of the Union message may have had a narrow, perhaps unexpected, but effective outcome. Much of the address focused on issues and policies of importance to the president's party. By ginning up partisan support generally, the president may be able to build on legislative momentum from Democrats and to maintain party unity on gun control. Conservative senators from the president's party, especially those who may face difficult races in 2014 such as Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mark Prior of Arkansas, and Mark Begich of Alaska, who may otherwise shirk their party and vote against gun control restrictions may then be more inclined to "toe the party line." A partisan message from the president may encourage local Democrats in those states to keep a tight rein on their senators and pressure them to vote with Democratic-sponsored initiatives on gun control.
This partisan leadership is a defensive presidential strategy but one that may be the president's only option in a polarized political world.
About Brandon Rottinghaus Associate Professor of Political Science
Lara Brown Author of 'Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants'