How Adam Lanza Wrecked Obama’s Second Term

Don’t blame the catastrophic health care rollout for all of the president’s woes. The Sandy Hook shooting played a big role, too.

President Barack Obama wipes tears as he makes a statement in response to the elementary school shooting in Connecticut December 14, 2012 at the White House in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Dec. 9, 2013, midnight

There are plenty of reas­ons this is the low­est point of Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency. He hasn’t ful­filled a ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive cam­paign prom­ise, his sig­na­ture second-term im­mig­ra­tion ini­ti­at­ive is para­lyzed, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion may nev­er en­tirely re­cov­er from the un­forced er­rors sur­round­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act’s rol­lout. But don’t blame these prob­lems alone for Obama’s re­cord-low 40 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing. In truth, his agenda went off the rails on a crisp Decem­ber morn­ing last year, when Adam Lanza strolled in­to Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary and killed 20 chil­dren and six adults. Obama hasn’t got­ten back on track since.

The Con­necti­c­ut mas­sacre set in mo­tion a cas­cade of events that led the White House to burn through its only real win­dow to ac­com­plish its goals. The month be­fore the shoot­ing, Obama had won a con­vin­cing reelec­tion and a mod­est pop­u­lar man­date. One ma­jor lib­er­al wish-list entry, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, seemed not only with­in reach but al­most in­ev­it­able.

Im­mig­ra­tion was in an al­most im­possible bi­par­tis­an sweet spot: a sin­gu­larly im­port­ant policy goal for Demo­crats that could be a polit­ic­al boon for both parties. For Re­pub­lic­ans, it was a way to fix a demo­graph­ic prob­lem re­vealed by the 2012 elec­tion. Still, they’d have to move quickly. The pop­u­list Right that had tor­pedoed im­mig­ra­tion re­form un­der George W. Bush seemed quieted by de­feat, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Then Lanza’s ram­page altered the de­bate in Wash­ing­ton. Sud­denly, pri­or­ity No. 1 wasn’t im­mig­ra­tion re­form but gun con­trol. The base that had just elec­ted Obama was clam­or­ing for back­ground checks and magazine-clip re­stric­tions, threat­en­ing to desert the pres­id­ent be­fore his second in­aug­ur­a­tion. Many in Wash­ing­ton, in­clud­ing Con­necti­c­ut’s Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors, were con­vinced that the much-feared Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation had be­come a “pa­per ti­ger.” The gun lobby’s muscle hadn’t been truly tested in al­most a dec­ade, and NRA head Wayne LaPierre’s bizarre press con­fer­ence days after the shoot­ing seemed to con­firm that the em­per­or had no clothes.

That meant im­mig­ra­tion would have to wait. The clock was tick­ing on both gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion, but Demo­crats moved ahead with gun con­trol first, re­cog­niz­ing that as the memory of the tragedy at Sandy Hook faded, so too would the im­petus for new laws. The Sen­ate spent months on a bill, which even­tu­ally got whittled down to a uni­ver­sal back­ground-check pro­vi­sion, be­fore it fi­nally died at the hands of a Re­pub­lic­an fili­buster in mid-April.

In the pro­cess, the ad­min­is­tra­tion fatally, and ir­re­voc­ably, ant­ag­on­ized the pop­u­list liber­tari­an Right, the same people whom main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats needed to stay on the side­lines for im­mig­ra­tion re­form to suc­ceed. By en­ga­ging in such an emo­tion­al, po­lar­iz­ing is­sue so early on, Obama poisoned the (ad­mit­tedly shal­low) well of good­will and the will­ing­ness to com­prom­ise by Re­pub­lic­ans be­fore his term even began in earn­est. When a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill even­tu­ally did pass the Sen­ate in late June with GOP sup­port, the House op­pos­i­tion made clear that the bill had little hope of be­com­ing law.

Even in hind­sight, it’s al­most im­possible to ima­gine the pres­id­ent choos­ing a dif­fer­ent path; the clam­or of the vic­tori­ous Left for gun-law re­form was just too strong. But the ripple ef­fect has dis­rup­ted Obama’s en­tire year. In April came the Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb­ing, which oc­curred just two days be­fore gun con­trol of­fi­cially died in the Sen­ate. In May came a trio of mini-scan­dals: new rev­el­a­tions about Benghazi; the al­leged IRS tar­get­ing of tea-party groups; and then the Justice De­part­ment’s snoop­ing on re­port­ers. A month later, Ed­ward Snowden’s first leaks star­ted emer­ging and have yet to stop. Many of these de­vel­op­ments deepened par­tis­an re­sent­ments.

The sum­mer brought little pro­gress, as Con­gress left town for most of Au­gust. By the time it re­turned, an­oth­er is­sue Obama wanted des­per­ately to avoid — Syr­ia — was threat­en­ing his agenda. Mean­while, Ted Cruz and com­pany set the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment on the path to a shut­down. Loom­ing ahead was the Health Care.gov fiasco.

The first few months of any pres­id­ent’s term, closest to their elect­or­al win and fur­thest from the next con­gres­sion­al midterm, are usu­ally the most fruit­ful. But in this case they pro­duced little of ma­jor sub­stance. The tragedy in Con­necti­c­ut shocked the na­tion’s and the pres­id­ent’s con­science, and he felt com­pelled to re­spond to polls that showed over­whelm­ing sup­port for ac­tion. But that dir­ec­tion was set, in some mean­ing­ful way, by a con­fused 20-year-old with a gun, not the oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice.

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