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.