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The Biden Gun Control Task Force: Risks and Rewards

Biden sits down to a meeting with representatives from the video game industry, in a dialogue about gun violence, in his office in Washington (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst).

The President has put the Vice President in a nearly impossible position: to change policy in an area rife with emotions and interest group opposition. Failure on Mr. Biden’s part may be inevitable, yet any chance he has to craft a successful gun control policy response to the Newtown tragedy requires measured reform and balanced strategy.

Mr. Biden is a master of the legislative process. He knows he cannot fix the whole problem nor can he achieve everything the president wants. Instead, he must recommend smaller-scale, straightforward gun reforms that the public can easily comprehend. “Assault weapons ban” is a vague and unclear term that most struggle to understand fully. It is also not passable. “Universal background checks” are something most Americans can comprehend and is harder for interest groups and activists to oppose. Biden knows any chance at success absolutely requires broad public support and minimal interest group (read: NRA) opposition. Smaller, piecemeal reforms can foster both.

In addition to the measured reform, Biden needs to insist on a balanced strategy. In some negotiations, it is critical to start big and negotiate down to compromise. For gun control, that approach would be an abject failure. If the Obama Administration begins with their ideal offer, they will ultimately get nothing. The “sensible gun reform” narrative will immediately be replaced with “Obama is coming for our guns.” Instead, if the White House thinks it can get 20% of what it wants, it must ask for 20%—nothing more, nothing less. Supporters on the left may criticize this approach, but they will be even angrier if the Vice President fails to deliver.

Reports also indicate that the Obama Administration may use executive power to enact some reforms. This approach may be a viable, effective, and necessary strategy, but not right now. If President Obama uses the powers of his office in advance of legislative efforts, he will ruin any momentum he has in Congress.  Premature executive action will ensure legislative failure. If the White House proposals fail—or even if they succeed—the president can rely on executive power later.  

The politics surrounding this issue make policy change profoundly difficult. Sensitivity toward the political needs and forces in Congress, in the public, and among interest groups is crucial. For a president who often struggles to deal with the politics of the legislative process, he must consider not only the strength of his office, but also the proper timing of his powers.

On Tuesday, the Biden Task Force will make public its recommendations. If the proposals are measured, they have a chance of enactment. If they are too broad and lack strategic vision they will certainly fail. In the end, Mr. Biden may be the only person in the White House with the capacity to succeed on this issue. Yet, his success depends on his approach and that of his boss.

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