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
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
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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