The latest slaughter of innocents and those who tried to protect them may not turn out to be a tipping point for the country. But President Obama has left no doubt that it was a tipping point for him.
Forgive Republicans if they’d like to see this year end as quickly as possible. It was somehow fitting that even as House Speaker John Boehner was reportedly offering concessions Sunday on talks to avoid the fiscal cliff, Republicans were splintering on Twitter and TV over Obama’s impassioned call to action on gun control.
Not that Obama mentioned gun control in his speech at a memorial for the 20 children and six adults killed in a shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn. He didn’t. But as Atlantic associate editor Brian Fung pointed out on Twitter, Abraham Lincoln didn’t mention slavery in the Gettysburg Address, either.
Obama was clear enough when he said that this was his fourth speech to comfort a community after a mass shooting, and that we are not doing enough to keep our children safe. He was clear enough when he said that he would use the power of his office to try to prevent future massacres.
“We can’t accept events like this as routine,” Obama said. “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
The message came through loud and clear to conservatives. “Appropriate: citing scripture, detailing the bravery, and expressing sorrow. Not appropriate: spending 3 minutes calling for gun control,” tweeted GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. Added Michael Biundo, a former aide to presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, “Mr. President, with all due respect, we needed you to be a father tonight, not a policy preacher.” But other Republicans seemed to be having watershed moments of their own. GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren said she was breaking with her GOP friends. “He's exactly right, gun violence must be addressed. The time is now,” she tweeted.
I confess I was prepared for Obama to present an encore of his performance in Tucson after the Gabby Giffords shooting – an emotional, eloquent, non-committal speech that drew on faith without promising action. I was prepared to argue that it would be inappropriate for him to do anything but that on Sunday night in a community gripped by such pain. How could he, when he did not know the politics of anyone in the room? How could he risk offending people who had suffered unimaginable losses?
But Obama proved me wrong. Speaking as both a parent and a president, he made his case in plain language devoid of political rhetoric, stripped down to bare common sense: This can’t go on. Mass shootings cannot become routine and accepted in America. We’ve got to protect our children. We’ve got to take what steps we can.
It was one of the highest profile moments of Obama’s presidency, and he didn’t waste it for fear of igniting anger among gun-rights lobbyists and enthusiasts. He used it to start the process of winning hearts, minds and support for a sea change in gun politics.