Gun Control Didn’t Ruin Obama’s Second Term

Alex Seitz-Wald test-drives what could easily become a new liberal fantasy:

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.

Instead, not only in this story did Obama’s gun control initiative sink immigration reform, but it derailed, at least so far, his entire second term.

C’mon. Let’s see…this argument depends on a bunch of stuff: To begin with: that there’s such a thing as a mandate (and that Obama had one on immigration), and that “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.” The latter holds for first terms, but as far as I know there’s no similar evidence on second terms, and certainly not second terms which also yield continued divided government.

For that matter, the list of reelections with continued divided government is a short one — in the last hundred years, only 1956, 1972, 1984, and 1996 fit that category before 2012, and of those 1972 wasn’t much of a test. I don’t think it supports Seitz-Wald’s point, either. Just looking at wikipedia…the 99th Congress didn’t pass any major bills until December 1985, but passed several, including tax reform, in 1986. Tax reform is as good a comp as any. Reagan sent up his proposal in May 1985; Ways and Means marked up a bill in September through December, 1985 and it passed the House in the same month; Senate Finance finished their markup in May, 1986; the Senate passed it at the end of June; and then after a formal conference in July and August, both chambers passed the bill in September, 1986.

Ike’s 85th Congress did pass three major laws in 1955, but several more in 1956. As for Clinton, not too much happened in the 105th (although unlike in Ike’s case, the second Congress of Clinton’s second term was more productive.

What I think all this says is: the “almost inevitable” was an illusion. Presidents re-elected with continued divided government don’t have a Hundred Days, and they basically don’t pass partisan initiatives.

Or, to put it another way: whether immigration reform passed was always going to be about what mainstream House conservatives wanted, and they really don’t care very much whether Barack Obama’s approval rating is at its honeymoon peak of around 51%, or if it’s fallen to around 48% (post-gun bill), 46% (after the Senate passed immigration), or 41% (now). Now, if Obama was at 70% that might scare a few moderates, but that wasn’t going to happen in winter and spring 2013.

Obama’s second term legislative agenda was derailed on election night 2012 when Republicans retained the House. After that, it’s just been a question of where to find a few productive compromises that work for both parties.

More broadly, it’s just not true that Congress, or even one chamber of Congress, can only do one thing at a time. Even when the bills are going to go through the same committees, it’s actually perfectly possible for two or more bills to advance through the process together. Sure, small delays are possible if two bills reach the exact same stage at the exact same time, but usually that’s not the case. The more likely explanation for the delay in the immigration bill — just as with the ACA in 2009 — is that it takes time for Congress to work its way through complex, contentious bills.

Pass it along: gun safety probably had no effect at all on the rest of Barack Obama’s second term.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.