President Obama has announced that he will tap Joe Biden to lead a task force to craft policies to curb gun violence. It strikes me that this is above all a cynical move by the President, designed to buy time to gauge public sentiment about just how far he and the Democrats can push gun control without outraging normal Americans.
Consider this: There have been plenty of liberal efforts to push gun control in the past -- indeed, state senator Barack Obama had some very detailed anti-gun prescriptions way back in 1999. If he were truly committed to taking a stand right here, right now, the President could simply reiterate those demands, or call for the Senate to pass Dianne Feinstin's proposed ban on assault weapons, or call for federal legislation mimicking the new California proposal to close "loopholes" in assault weapons bans and restrict the sale of ammunition.
But he's not. Instead, he's outsourcing it to a committee, which is often where politically tricky issues go to die. That's because Democrats have been aware in recent years that their gun control stance was hurting them among white males in rural areas like West Virginia, and tempered their stance accordinglly. That's why -- in the elegant rhetoric long associated wtih him -- Joe Biden (now described as a "longtime gun control advocate" by the Associated Press) had this to say in 2008: "I guarantee you Barack Obama aint' taking my shotguns."
Given the President's obvious hesitation to entertain the gun issue before his reelection, it's clear he's aware of those numbers and that history. Indeed, a piece by a Chicago journalist just last summer pointed out the political motivation for the contradiction between Obama's stance on gun control as a state senator and as president, noting:
For Obama, it’s a political calculation. Obama’s weakest demographic is white men without college degrees. He’s getting only 29 percent of their votes. Working-class white men have struggled during the recession, so Obama wants to make an economic argument for their support, especially in the Rust Belt swing states of Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But they’re also culturally conservative and disproportionately rural, which means they cherish gun rights. They’re already suspicious of Obama because he’s a big city African-American liberal. If he comes out in favor of gun control, they’re not going to listen to him on jobs or any other issue. These same voters punished Democrats for passing the 1994 assault weapons ban, giving Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
That’s why we’re not going to hear about gun control between now and Election Day.
However sincere Obama's pain at the death of the Sandy Hook children may be, it's still not enough to get him to take any personal political risk. His plan seems to be -- as par for the course with him -- say what he thinks his base needs to hear, then outsource responsibility for actuallly coming up with something. This committee is a way to establish "plausible deniability" if need be, while Democrats figure out just how much government intrusion into gun ownership they can get away with.