What was billed as a pivotal week for gun control and immigration reform on Capitol Hill has turned into a mourning period for those killed and injured in the bombings in Boston.
Tuesday’s much-anticipated press conference to unveil the first major immigration overhaul in decades was postponed “out of respect for the victims of the terrible tragedy in Boston,” wrote Sen. John McCain of Arizona on Twitter. Gruesome scenes from the finish line of the Boston Marathon have replaced images of the victims of the Newtown school shootings and their families on the front pages.
“Major national calamities like this tend to freeze everything else,” said David Axelrod, a former White House adviser to President Obama. “The focus will be on Boston for days, crowding out other news. Immigration reform, which was on the launching pad, will have to wait for a few days. As for the gun debate, proponents of background checks will delay action because, with nearly 90 percent on their side, they'll want the full attention of the nation on that vote.”
A president who has grappled with a recession and two wars now faces the challenge of juggling his response to the violence in Boston with a crowded domestic agenda. In a striking example of the balancing act, Obama held a Tuesday morning press conference on the bombings and was scheduled to meet later in the afternoon with Sens. McCain and Chuck Schumer of New York on their new immigration bill.
Until more details about the bombings come to light, until officials learn whether they were the work of a lone perpetrator or a foreign terrorist cell, it’s unclear how much time and attention will be demanded from the administration.
“You have to be ambidextrous in the White House,” said Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary under President Clinton. “Every White House has to contend with multiple crises happening at the same time.”
President George W. Bush’s first term in office was dominated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leaving ambitious plans to overhaul immigration law and Social Security until his second term. “Domestic issues were always important, but the focus was on keeping the country safe,” said Sara Fagen, who served as White House political director under Bush. When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed on April 19, 1995, President Clinton was still reeling from the 1994 midterm election that cost Democrats control of Congress. Health care reform had been a colossal failure.
“Clinton was at a much different starting point, in that there were articles being written about whether the office of the presidency was even relevant,” McCurry said. “The speech he gave when he went down to Oklahoma City many people credit with shifting the focus back to the bully pulpit and its possibilities. The bombing changed the equation in a significant way and gave Clinton some momentum going into the budget fights that occupied most of 1995.”
Indeed, one of the most pivotal roles of a president during a national tragedy is to rally the country. In his nationally televised briefing, President Obama praised the marathon runners, emergency responders, and hospital personnel who tended to the wounded.
“The American people refuse to be terrorized,” he said. “So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil -- that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid…. The people of Boston will continue to respond in the same proud and heroic way that they have thus far -- and their fellow Americans will be right there with them.”
Though the president cautioned against speculation, finger-pointing is inevitable in a highly charged political arena. Rep. Steve King of Iowa told National Review that Congress shouldn’t rush into immigration reform in the aftermath of the bombings.
“Some of the speculation that has come out is that yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa,” King said. “If that’s the case, then we need to take a look at the big picture.”
He added: “If we can’t background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background-check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?”
McCain, one of the sponsors of the immigration bill, said he disagreed with drawing a connection between the bombings and the bill.
“I don’t think it’s related,” he said. McCain also suggested that if the culprits turned out to be in the country illegally, the bill would address the problem head on. “In fact, our provisions are to secure the border more,” he said. “I think it’s an argument for quick passage of it.”