Biden Victory Lap on Gun Law Reveals Larger Political Problem
By Susan Milligan
President Joe Biden Monday did exactly what Democratic operatives have been pleading with him to do for most of his presidency: have a big event at the White House, taking credit for passing a piece of legislation other presidents have been unable or unwilling to do for nearly three decades.
“Success begets success,” the president said at a Rose Garden event to laud the passage of the first gun safety legislation since the expired assault weapons ban of 1994. While the administration wants to do more, “We finally moved that mountain – a mountain of opposition, obstruction and indifference that stood in the way and stopped every effort at gun safety for 30 years in this nation,” Biden said. “Now’s the time to galvanize this movement.”
For Biden, it should have been a valedictory moment. Not only had the president gone up against the powerful gun lobby and won, but he achieved the second major bipartisan law (after the infrastructure law) of his administration at a time of deep and bitter partisanship on the Hill.
But in the middle of Biden’s address, a protester stood up and interrupted him. It was Manuel Oliver, father of a victim of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
“We have got to do more than that!” Oliver shouted, minutes after family and community members from the recent shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, had gone to the podium to thank Biden for his support.
Biden initially stopped, saying, “Let him talk,” while entreating him to “sit down and listen to what I have to say.” But security escorted the man out of the event, and Biden continued.
“Make no mistake about it, this legislation is real progress,” Biden said. But “more needs to be done” beyond the law that makes it harder for an 18- to 21-year-old to buy a firearm, closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” to protect victims of domestic violence and provides $750 million for mental health, school safety and crisis intervention programs.
The scene represents an ongoing political problem for Biden, whose approval rating in a New York Times/Siena College poll sunk to a new low of 33%. While Biden would still beat Republican Donald Trump head to head, 44% to 41%, the Times poll also found that 64% of Democrats don’t think the president should run for reelection.
Conservatives think Biden has gone too far to the left and don’t like the efforts Biden has made to lower gun violence or ease access to abortion as a majority of states move to ban or severely restrict the procedure after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling last month.
The Democratic base, meanwhile, is terribly frustrated at what they see as too little progress, too late – and are blaming Biden for it.
Abortion rights activists, angry at the recent Supreme Court decision, directed their ire over the weekend not at anti-abortion Republicans or senators who voted to confirm the justices that undid Roe v. Wade but at Biden. They demonstrated in front of the White House, complaining that the president was not doing enough to make abortion available in an era when abortion is no longer a guaranteed right.
It didn’t help that Kate Bedingfeld, the departing White House communications director, fueled the intra-Democratic divide when she tried to explain the White House response to The Washington Post.
“Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” Bedingfeld said. “It’s to deliver help to women who are in danger and assemble a broad-based coalition to defend a woman’s right to choose now, just as he assembled such a coalition to win during the 2020 campaign.”
Asked for his response to the White House protesters, Biden urged them to “keep protesting.”
“Keep making your point. It’s critically important,” Biden told reporters Sunday in Rehoboth, Delaware. “We can do a lot of things to accommodate the rights of women in the meantime. But, fundamentally, the only thing that’s going to change this is if we have a national law that reinstates Roe v. Wade. That’s the bottom line.”
The Women’s March, one of the organizers of the weekend’s protests, accused Biden of trying to “scapegoat” women.
“Will the president join us, or will he use his influential platform to scold a vast grassroots army of citizens pushing a wildly popular agenda who dare to believe that better is possible?” Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director at Women’s March, said in a statement.
“The choice is his.”
Unfortunately for Biden, the choice is not his – at least when it comes to things that require congressional approval.
The president has been criticized, for example, for waiting so long to endorse the abandonment of the filibuster. But Biden’s support for trashing the filibuster in certain cases has no practical impact, as two Democratic senators – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have been very clear that they will not back the idea. Without buy-in from all 50 Democratic senators, the filibuster will stay.
Approving more sweeping gun safety legislation is also a tall order, despite widespread public support for tighter gun laws. Biden said Monday he wanted to ban assault weapons and make gun owners liable if they do not keep their firearms safely locked away – a proposal he said the majority of “responsible gun owners” support.
But Congress has consistently refused to adopt even minimal restrictions on guns for several decades. The recent law was “not enough. We all know that,” the president acknowledged Monday, referring to the policy. It may not be enough either, for Biden’s political future.