President Barack Obama can look back on 2015 and take credit for landmark deals over Republican objections on climate, Iran and government spending. The year 2016 may be a tougher stretch, because he’s promising action on another thorny issue: gun control.
The new gun rules — coming in weeks, White House Communications Director Jen Psaki recently told reporters — open a final year in office for Obama in which he will employ his personal authority to win major policy changes and assert himself in the November elections, making him far more visible than his predecessors, aides said.
"Since taking this office, I have never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now. And in 2016 I’m going to leave it out all on the field," Obama said today at a White House news conference before departing for Christmas vacation in Hawaii.
Obama’s self-assurance at a point in the political cycle when presidents often are relegated to lame-ducks culminates a year in which he has made full use of the powers of the presidency to reach ground-breaking international agreements and drive a domestic agenda over the opposition of a hostile Congress.
He concluded the first global climate change agreement, closed a nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated an Asia-Pacific trade deal, ended the U.S. isolation of Cuba and imposed new pollution controls on U.S. power plants. About 90 minutes after his news conference, he signed a $1.1 trillion spending package that averted a government shutdown. He pointed to an improving economy as evidence his policies are helping ordinary Americans.
"As I look back on this year, the one thing I see is that so much of our steady persistent work over the years is paying off for the American people in big, tangible ways," Obama said. The Gallup Poll, based on surveys conducted Dec. 7-13, showed his public approval rating at 45 percent, up two percentage points from a year earlier.
Gun control is first on the agenda for the coming year. Wading into the issue at the start of primary voting in the presidential campaign is sure to provoke vehement political and legal challenges, similar to his attempt last year to end the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants. That action remains mired in a court battle.
No major gun-control measure has emerged from Washington since the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired ten years later and was not renewed. Obama’s unsuccessful attempt to win congressional passage of new gun-control laws after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, sapped political capital at the beginning of his second term.
The White House doesn’t plan a repeat of that fight. By choosing to move forward only with executive actions, Obama avoids being tied down in another protracted congressional battle he would likely lose. Democrats since former President Bill Clinton have tried without success to pass legislation expanding background checks by closing what critics call the gun-show loophole.
The trade-off is that the steps Obama takes won’t be as far-reaching and may be more vulnerable to legal challenge.
While any actions on gun control risk mobilizing gun-rights supporters, one of the most passionate interest groups in American politics, the policy would at least provide a concrete achievement for supporters of limitations on guns, a key constituency for Democrats in next year’s elections.
Obama "will not be satisfied" without more limits on guns by the end of his term, Psaki said at the session with reporters hosted by Bloomberg News. Gun violence is "probably the issue that has touched him most, personally."
The Justice Department is finishing recommendations for the president on how best to craft gun restrictions that don’t require legislation from Congress and can survive court challenges, Psaki said. The administration is considering a "range of steps that can be taken as it relates to the people who have access to guns" and "how people gain access to guns," she said.
"I’m not going to take anything on or off the table" Psaki said of options including closing the gun-show loophole for background checks and a proposed ban on gun purchases by people on the federal "no-fly" list.
Steps such as expanded background checks and preventing gun purchases by individuals on terrorist watch lists show broad appeal in polls.
Still, while the Obama administration responded to the San Bernardino attack with a renewed push on gun control, escalating fears of terrorism among the U.S. public have raised support for gun rights. For the first time in more than two decades, a majority of the country now opposes a ban on the sale of assault weapons, by 53 percent to 45 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Dec. 10-13.
The same poll suggests the public now wants ordinary Americans to have readier access to weapons. People in the survey, by 47 percent to 42 percent, preferred allowing Americans to carry guns legally over enacting stricter gun control laws.
Americans may also be sending Obama a message with their wallets. The FBI reported that on Nov. 27, the shopping day known as Black Friday in the U.S., it processed 185,345 instant background checks for gun purchases, the most ever in a single day.
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