President Obama’s determination to enact a gun-control measure in the wake of the Connecticut shootings could transform his place in history.
Success is anything but assured, given the lobbies arrayed against him and the previous failures of such measures. But it could upend more than two centuries of American tradition. It also could boost the President into the pantheon of liberal presidents, placing him beside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the principal progressives in American history.
This may seem discordant with the prevailing view of Mr. Obama as a reluctant warrior, a halting leader, an eager compromiser whose opponents are more vocal and more committed than he or his supporters.
On the surface, Mr. Obama’s accomplishments may seem to pale next to those of FDR and LBJ, both of whom passed multiple pieces of major legislation. Their programmatic principles fit neatly under the two-word thematic umbrellas of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Mr. Obama lacks such an overarching template. His signature achievements — overhauls of health care and financial services to accompany a potential victory on gun control — would be more modest in number than those of President Roosevelt and President Johnson.
But with a victory on guns, Mr. Obama would deserve an exalted place, not because he could match those who came before him program for program or initiative for initiative. Unlike them, he would have achieved major liberal goals that had eluded his predecessors for generations.
The first, of course, is a comprehensive overhaul of the health-care system, which accounts for about one-seventh of the economy, arguably affecting more Americans more deeply than any other measure promoted by any president ever.
A victory on gun control would set off an earthquake across the American political landscape.
Curtailing the availability of weapons has been a liberal goal since the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. A few conservatives, including former White House press secretary James Brady, joined the effort after the 1981 attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
What Mr. Obama almost certainly will propose will be more far-reaching than any proposal on this subject by any previous president. If he prevails, he will have succeeded where other chief executives with liberal leanings, including Presidents Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, failed.
Although liberals would be reluctant to agree, a victory on gun control also would be a profound departure in American progressive history.
The glory of American liberalism has been the extension of rights to those who did not own property, to those who were not male, to those who were not white, to those who were not straight.
A gun-control victory for Mr. Obama — awarded an F by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence after he signed 2009 legislation that permits people to carry concealed weapons in national parks — would be the first significant abrogation of American rights in our history. Prohibition does not count; the 18th Amendment did not curtail what had been a constitutionally protected right. Limiting gun rights, as National Rifle Association members argue, would do so.
Mr. Obama has stirred bitter opposition from conservatives and bitter disappointment from liberals. Though conservatives believe he personifies unbounded liberalism, many of his putative allies believe he hasn’t pushed hard or far enough.
If a major gun-control measure is signed into law, history will argue otherwise.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org