Obama for America’s post-election transformation into the grassroots lobbying group Organizing for Action (OFA) was supposed to provide the political heft (and supersized bank account) President Obama would need to implement his sweeping second-term agenda. So far, however, efforts to translate OFA’s success in turning out support for its candidate into generating support for his actual policies have thoroughly failed to impress.
Take gun control. In the months since the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., the president has waged an aggressive campaign to implement stricter gun-control policies. He concluded his State of the Union address with a rousing appeal for congressional action — “The families of Newtown deserve a vote” — and continues to implore the American people: “Shame on us if we forget.” OFA, though legally prohibited from coordinating with the White House, has thrown its full weight behind the effort.
The OFA Twitter account (@BarackObama) has been urging followers to contact members of Congress using emotional appeals, such as a chart from the left-wing Center for American Progress comparing the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with the number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. The group will hold a series of rallies across the country on April 13 designed to pressure Congress to take up gun-control legislation.
But despite the months-long campaign, Congress has yet to vote on a single piece of gun-control legislation. Efforts to ban “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines have floundered, and public support for stricter gun laws has waned considerably. At the state level, efforts to ease restrictions on guns have outnumbered efforts to tighten them. Obama has been forced to dramatically lower expectations, and now appears poised to accept any bill that can pass.
Many factors are driving the president’s and OFA’s inability to gain traction on the issue. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who has a “B” lifetime rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and is trying to protect red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014, simply does not have the votes for a bill to impose greater controls on background checks. “They don’t have the votes to get to 51, much less 60,” says a GOP aide. “They’re losing on policy and they’re losing on message. We feel pretty good about our chances of stopping any bill that threatens the Second Amendment.”
Conservative critics argue that OFA’s troubles reveal a hard truth about Obama that Democrats tend to overlook: The president’s personal popularity does not extend to his policies. “It just shows that many people wiling to carry the Obama campaign sign have no interest in getting activated on behalf on his policy goals,” says Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads.
NRA president David Keene concurs. “They’re learning that when you put together something like they did for Obama, it’s hard to translate that into other activities,” he tells National Review Online. “They believed they had put together this machinery that they could use for darn near anything, and that just wasn’t true.”
Collegio notes that exit polling from the 2012 presidential election revealed that voter opposition to Mitt Romney was largely influenced by attacks on the candidate’s character, as opposed to a general disregard for Republican policies. Indeed, recent polling suggests that GOP ideas remain popular, even as the party’s reputation seems in need of rebranding. “Democrats are mistaken to think there is broad public support for their policy platform,” he says. “The question is whether Obama can turn the enthusiasm that he generates in an election context into a governing context in the off years, and to date every attempt at this has failed.”
The specific nature of the gun-control debate makes Obama’s and OFA’s challenge all the more difficult. Gun-control advocates will likely never be able to match the natural enthusiasm that exists in the pro-gun segment of the population, particularly when the latter finds itself on the defensive. “The difference between OFA and the NRA is that the NRA has millions of members who are passionately focused on the issue of Second Amendment rights, whereas Obama supporters are a much broader and much shallower pool of support for a specific person,” says Collegio.
The Obama administration was wrong to assume that the Newtown shooting significantly altered the political environment, Keene argues. “They thought Newtown changed everything, that everybody wants all of these gun-control bills passed. They are learning that wasn’t true,” he says. “Those who believe in the right to use and own firearms are not going away, and are not going to be cowed. They’re calling Congress, writing senators, doing what needs to be done.”
Keene cautions that it’s too early to declare “total victory” in the ongoing fight over gun control, but says that gun-rights advocates are “winning a few battles” and the momentum is “moving in our direction.” Even the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed “serious concerns” about the background-check legislation awaiting a vote in the Senate. Meanwhile, gun and ammo sales are booming. So OFA’s hopes of keeping the spirit of 2012 alive in 2013 and beyond are encountering trouble in their first big test.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.