Many expected President Obama’s final State of the Union address to include a discussion of gun safety. It did not. Shockingly, the president remained silent on an issue that brought him to tears during a speech just weeks ago. And many Americans—especially activists in the gun safety community—are asking why.
The stage was set for a bold and rousing discussion of the issue. An empty seat beside First Lady Michelle Obama signified those Americans who have died from gun violence. The president invited Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy as a guest. Governor Malloy is best known nationally for his resolve in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in 2012. The speech came on the heels of the president announcing a series of executive actions on gun safety. But before the Joint Session of Congress, the president remained silent. That silence, however, was remarkably powerful.
By omitting gun safety from his speech, the State of the Union served as the president’s silent protest against congressional inaction on the issue. It is no secret that the president is frustrated with Congress. During his New Year’s Day radio address, Obama noted,
“…Congress still hasn’t done anything to prevent what happened to [students in Newtown, Gabby Giffords, and other victims] from happening to other families. Three years ago, a bipartisan, commonsense bill would have required background checks for virtually everyone who buys a gun…But the gun lobby mobilized against it, and the Senate blocked it…We know we can’t stop every act of violence. But what if we tried to stop even one? What if Congress did something—anything—to protect our kids from gun violence?”
Last night, the president recognized his words would do little to move Congress on the issue. Instead, in the House chamber, he presented to Congress only imagery: an empty seat and a governor who dealt with the unimaginable. He didn’t give congressional opponents words to scoff at, he simply gave them a visual which they could not refute.
The president and his team built expectations around the idea that he would engage this issue, and in some ways, he may have generated more buzz by omission than by statement. There was no backlash, no vitriol, no words taken out of context. Instead, attention was paid to the issue of gun safety without the typical rhetorical tsunami that usually accompanies this controversial issue.
There was more to the president’s silence than protest. The president offered a symbol of his approach to this issue—an approach thrust upon him by political realities. On gun safety, the president has largely been forced to “go it alone.” He was unable to get legislation passed in 2013, and overall, gun reform is a non-starter. In January 2013, the president issued nearly two dozen executive actions on guns that improved data in the background check system, nominated an ATF director, launched a responsible gun ownership campaign, developed study groups on mental health and school safety, among other things.
Still, massacres continued.
In January 2016, the president, once again used executive authority in an effort to reduce gun violence. These efforts largely used the rulemaking (regulatory) process to strengthen data systems for background checks, reduce the number of people selling and purchasing guns at gun shows without a background check, and improve the government’s ability to identify those ineligible to purchase guns because of violent or mental health histories.
The president has asked Congress to work with him on these issues, but Congress has been unwilling. Last night the president put that reality on display. He showed America symbols of gun violence, but opted not to “discuss” the issue with Congress. That silence symbolized a message: policy would change, even if Congress was to have no part of it. His invited guests (and others not in attendance)—likely had time to discuss the issue with the president. Congress, however, was not afforded that opportunity.
Two years ago during his State of the Union, President Obama warned Congress that he would use his “pen and phone” to act in policy areas that they ignored. This year, he used his pen. He overcame the inertia in Congress that blocked the type of reform he wanted, and in the end, Congress was just an onlooker to policy change. Last night, too, Congress could look up to the House Gallery to see what the president was talking about. Ultimately, although many Americans waited for the president to wag his finger at legislators over gun safety, he didn’t need to say anything. And Congress got the message.
Free speech shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it has been drawn into the larger dynamics of polarization in this country.