James Fallows wrote this about President Obama’s speech yesterday.
I think the presentation as a whole — talking about law, balances of rights, the art of the possible, the long process of political change — will be one of the moments that is remembered and studied from Obama’s time in office.
What we saw in this speech was that – on an issue he obviously feels passionate about – the President put everything he has on the table. Let’s take a closer look.
To begin, the President thanked Mark Barden (father of Daniel, who was killed at Sandy Hook) for the introduction. He included this:
I still remember the first time we met, the time we spent together, and the conversation we had about Daniel. And that changed me that day.
He is referring to the quiet moments he spent with the families of the Newtown shooting. As Joshua Dubois wrote, President Obama has never spoken publicly about them. But obviously they had a profound impact.
The speech then goes through the lawyerly process of laying out the case for doing something about gun violence. I won’t go through the entire argument. But there was a moment that stood out to me. It was when he talked about the bill on background checks that failed in the Senate after the Sandy Hook shooting.
Two United States Senators — Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, both gun owners, both strong defenders of our Second Amendment rights, both with “A” grades from the NRA — that’s hard to get — worked together in good faith, consulting with folks like our Vice President, who has been a champion on this for a long time, to write a common-sense compromise bill that would have required virtually everyone who buys a gun to get a background check. That was it. Pretty common-sense stuff. Ninety percent of Americans supported that idea. Ninety percent of Democrats in the Senate voted for that idea. But it failed because 90 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against that idea.
There have been times that the President has been criticized by partisan Democrats for not being clear about which party is responsible for blocking legislation that is supported by a majority of the American people. This time he didn’t hold back. He made it very clear who obstructed…Republicans.
After laying out the argument for action, President Obama described the executive actions he is taking. And then he got to the part of the speech that has received the most attention.
All of us should be able to work together to find a balance that declares the rest of our rights are also important — Second Amendment rights are important, but there are other rights that we care about as well. And we have to be able to balance them. Because our right to worship freely and safely — that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City. And that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too.
Our right to peaceful assembly — that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette. Our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — those rights were stripped from college students in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high schoolers at Columbine, and from first-graders in Newtown. First-graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun.
Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.
When the lawyerly arguments had all been made, the words came from the heart. And the tears the President shed let us all know that he not only gets angry when he thinks about those kids, his heart grieves.
President Obama ended his speech with a powerful story of inspiration.
Zaevion Dobson was a sophomore at Fulton High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. He played football; beloved by his classmates and his teachers. His own mayor called him one of their city’s success stories. The week before Christmas, he headed to a friend’s house to play video games. He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hadn’t made a bad decision. He was exactly where any other kid would be. Your kid. My kids. And then gunmen started firing. And Zaevion — who was in high school, hadn’t even gotten started in life — dove on top of three girls to shield them from the bullets. And he was shot in the head. And the girls were spared. He gave his life to save theirs — an act of heroism a lot bigger than anything we should ever expect from a 15-year-old. “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
We are not asked to do what Zaevion Dobson did. We’re not asked to have shoulders that big; a heart that strong; reactions that quick. I’m not asking people to have that same level of courage, or sacrifice, or love. But if we love our kids and care about their prospects, and if we love this country and care about its future, then we can find the courage to vote. We can find the courage to get mobilized and organized. We can find the courage to cut through all the noise and do what a sensible country would do.
Washington pundits have often described President Obama as professorial. In this speech, he drew on that to make a strong argument. Republicans will do what they do – cut and paste his words to distort them rather than engage with what he actually said. But if anyone ever wants to understand the challenge we face when it comes to gun violence, it’s all there.
Demonstrating that professorial doesn’t necessarily mean distant and aloof (two other words that have been used to describe the President), this speech was so much more than that. Because in addition, he got to the heart of the matter and we all shared the grief and anger he expressed. Finally, we were inspired by the courage and sacrifice of Zaevion Dobson.
The President put everything he has on the table. That’s why this speech will be remembered.