First, there’s the matter of the tears. President Obama somewhat dramatically announced that he will enforce our existing gun control laws in a way that redefines just who is a gun dealer and who is not, closing the loophole that had previously been open for guns shows and internet sales. The details are here – it wasn’t much, but it was what he could do, as it’s his job to implement the laws that Congress passes as efficiently as possible. He seems to be on firm legal ground – he’s not changing the law at all – he made that clear – but each and every Republican and Republican candidate was hopping mad about this. And Obama teared up at one point, and they didn’t like that at all.
Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley has a screenshot and provides context – Obama had been introduced by Mark Barden, the father of Daniel Barden, one of the kids shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary, and said this:
Second Amendment rights are important; 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 Hills, and Sikhs in Oak Creek. And they had rights, too.
Our right to peaceful assembly, that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette, and the inalienable right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara and from high schoolers in 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 the about those kids, it gets me mad.
That’s when things started to change, and at the New Yorker, John Cassidy, saw this:
At turns scornful, hopeful, and angry, Obama delivered an emotional peroration on the issue that has perhaps frustrated him more than any other. … Perhaps the speech wasn’t the greatest that the President has delivered, but it was among the most direct and heartfelt. At the very least, it should lay to rest portrayals of him as a cold and distant figure, a Mr. Spock in the Oval Office. This was Obama with his humanity, and his despair, all too visible. But it was also a defiant Obama – a President who had decided that in his last months in office he would do what he could, even as he knew that it wouldn’t be enough.
Appearing before an audience that included Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman who was gravely wounded during a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011, the President was introduced by Mark Barden, whose son, Daniel, was shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Recalling his initial meeting with Barden, which took place shortly after the December, 2012, massacre, Obama said quietly, “That changed me, that day, and my hope, earnestly, has been that it would change the country.”
Obama’s hopes, and the hopes of the entire gun-control movement, were to be disappointed, of course. Acknowledging that he’d been defeated in his efforts to overcome the gun lobby after Newtown, the President didn’t try to oversell his new proposals, which are modest and sensible measures that Congress should have approved years ago.
They never did, and never will, so there was a bit of despair in the air:
As he often does, Obama gave the impression that he was bemused by the opposition to such simple, potentially life-saving measures. He cited evidence from Connecticut and Missouri to support his case that requiring background checks can have an impact on gun deaths. He mentioned polling data showing that the vast majority of Americans support mandatory background checks, as do a majority of Republicans, and even a majority of NRA supporters. Pointing to the Republicans’ refusal, in the wake of the attack last month in San Bernardino, California, to approve a law that would have prevented people on the federal no-fly list from buying firearms, he said, simply, “That’s not right. That can’t be right.”
In the first part of his speech, Obama kept it together. He was playing his usual role as the most reasonable man in the room, twinning an appeal to reason with some basic morality.
And then he lost it:
At this second mention of Newtown, the President started to tear up, and he had to stop for a few seconds. “First graders,” he repeated, trying to steady himself. It didn’t work. After resuming his speech for a sentence, he stopped again, this time for longer. He wiped away a tear, this one from below his left eye, and then he pressed his lips with his thumb and forefinger. Finally, he spoke. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said, gesticulating with his index finger and brushing away another tear, this one from below his right eye. “And, by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
Seeing the President’s display of emotion, the crowd applauded, which gave him a bit more time to pull himself together. “So,” he went on, the wetness on his face still clearly visible, “all of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies. All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors and legislators and businesses do their part to make our communities safer.”
And then he was back on track, but somehow that wasn’t playing fair. Salon’s Amanda Marcotte tracked the right’s reaction to this:
The assumption that he must be faking it got an immediate boost from Breitbart’s John Nolte, who vomited up a fully formed conspiracy theory in response. “MYSTERY: Obama touches eyes seconds before fascist tears rolls. Why? Ben-Gay proven to create fascist tears.”
Charles Cooke of the National Review didn’t go that far, but echoed the immediate assumption that anyone crying over dead kids must be faking it. “Well, that was embarrassing. As I said, he’s let his emotion get the better of him. Irrational. Dishonest. And ultimately weak.”
This line was picked up by Andrea Tantaros on Fox News. “So, I would check that podium for like a raw onion or some No More Tears,” Tantaros said. “It’s not really believable. And the award goes to… we are in awards season.” Meghan McCain was on the show and concurred, saying it “didn’t seem horribly authentic” and calling it “bad political theater.”
Marcotte was pissed off, and wondered about the appeals to emotion over on that side:
This reaction makes a lot more sense when you consider the important role that fake emotion, especially phony expressions of fear, plays in right wing politics. If you spent so much time dropping crocodile tears over the deaths of fertilized eggs, pretending that ISIS is about to march on Wichita, and working yourself into a faux outrage over Hillary Clinton supposedly not loving women, you might start to think that any expression of emotion from your opponents is insincere, as well.
For those on the right who mistake acting like an asshole with strength, however, Obama’s tears were indicative that he lacked the levels of sociopathy supposedly necessary to lead a country.
Eric Bolling of Fox News was all over this talking point. “Those tears, Mr. Obama, ya’ think ISIS sees them as emotional strength or weakness?” he ranted.
That does call for context:
It is true that members of ISIS, who have really acclimated themselves with bombings and beheadings, are not as ruffled by massacred 6-year-olds as some of the rest of us might be. But should ISIS really be the role model here? Is impressing ISIS with your pathological lack of empathy for your fellow human being really what we want in a president?
On a similar tip, many on the right went after the notion that only someone who is a child himself could be moved to tears by the death of children.
She covers that too, and it’s dreary stuff, and then she adds this:
Obama’s speech was actually the opposite of the histrionic fear-mongering that goes on every day on the right. He never suggested that Americans should cower in their homes, afraid of going down in a hail of gunfire if they leave. What he did say is that guns kill nearly as many people as car accidents in this country, a startling statistic when you consider that nearly everyone in this country spends some of their time in cars, often every day. In other words, he offered a sober, reality-based assessment of the situation, explained that fixing the problem will be a long slog, and offered some important first steps.
It was an excellent demonstration of the fact that emotion need not be the enemy of reason. For the right, emotions like fear and grief are treated primarily as justifications for abandoning reason, from invading countries for no good reason to terminating effective sex-ed because the idea of your children growing up terrifies you. But Obama demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be that way. His emotion served his reasonableness. His sadness at loss of life compelled him to seek effective solutions, instead of flailing around screaming nonsense.
Perhaps conservatives should learn from him, instead of mocking him.
That seems unlikely, and Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir goes even further:
Barack Obama does not have permission to cry, for a bunch of obvious reasons and some that maybe less so. Given his well-known socialistic, Islamophile leanings and his funny name, his tears are inherently suspicious. (Under the conventions of old-school American masculinity, I mean.) We perceive – correctly, I would say – that whether the Bears win the Super Bowl or go 1-15 is for Obama a subject for sardonic commentary, not profound emotion.
But he did cry this time, and that was unforgivable:
He cried because terrible things have happened, and he has been unable to prevent them. In the most literal sense, it was an admission of weakness. That, of course, is the least acceptable reason of all.
It would be perfectly respectable, and indeed advisable, for a manly man to let a few rugged tears leak down his rugged cheeks at a memorial to the Americans who were killed in the Benghazi raid, for example. Their sacrifice stands as a monument to freedom, or something. But for the president to cry because a disturbed young man bought assault weapons at the mall and shot a bunch of first-graders for no reason – and because we did nothing to stop it from happening and then did nothing to stop it from happening again, over and over – that’s pussified and infantile and effeminate.
Or maybe something else is going on here:
It sounds like a cheap partisan argument to suggest that Obama was crying over seven years of near-total political paralysis, and over the dubious or underwhelming presidential legacy he will soon leave behind… because that’s pretty much what they’re saying on Fox News: Obama cried because his presidency has been a failure. I’m not using that word, because we honestly won’t know that for some time, and I’m not claiming that some other plausible president would have been a whole lot better. Indeed, I’m not claiming that the country is governable, in its present disordered and self-deluded condition.
But Barack Obama is one of the most intelligent and analytical people ever to occupy the White House, and I feel pretty sure he can see the situation clearly. Our social and cultural and political failure to control the private ownership of lethal weapons, which is unique among advanced nations and has caused no end of carnage and tragedy, is grievous enough all by itself. But it’s also a symptom of deeper endemic failures that have bedeviled America during the Obama years: failures of justice, failures of decision-making and responsibility, failures of compassion, failures of both reason and imagination.
Well, things didn’t work out:
This is the guy who ran for president promising to get us out of Iraq, close the prison at Guantánamo Bay and reduce government spying and government secrecy. Maybe those things were never possible or practical; whatever the sober men in the dark suits told him between election night in November of 2008 and Inauguration Day in January of 2009 was some scary shit. But it was possible and practical to become the first president to order the push-button, long-distance summary execution of an American citizen, and I’m afraid that one will live in infamy.
Whatever you make of the Obama administration at the seven-eighths pole – and yes, I know, the Affordable Care Act and the Iran treaty and the climate deal are not nothing – his presidency began on a huge wave of optimism and devolved into a tragic and peculiar tale. He has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to manage an unmanageable situation and negotiating with people who did not want to negotiate. He wanted to change the course of American history and has done so, in Victor Frankenstein fashion, by driving the Republican Party into madness and enabling the monstrous rise of Donald Trump. Was any of that his fault? Maybe not, but it’s a pretty good reason for a grown man to cry.
First, there’s the matter of the tears, and then there’s the matter of the legacy, and Paul Waldman trying to explain The Extraordinarily Complicated Successes of President Obama:
When he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama pointed to Ronald Reagan as a model for what kind of president he would like to be, not because he agreed with Reagan politically, but because Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” We won’t know about America’s long-term trajectory after the Obama years for some time, but as he begins his last year in office, it’s not too early to say that Obama will probably turn out to be one of the most consequential presidents in recent history, if not of all time. This will be true even though his most important victories are partial and incomplete.
I use the word “consequential” and not something like “great” because we usually assign greatness only to those whose achievements most of us can agree were positive – Lincoln holding the Union together, FDR guiding the country through the Great Depression and World War II – or to those we think were great because they succeeded in achieving our own partisan goals. In this most polarized age (and in the midst of the administration itself), no president could be judged great by all, at least not for long.
That’s the depressing context here, but things went well:
In October 2008, anticipating his victory, I wrote that he had four great tasks before him. “If he sees the country through the current economic crisis, brings the war in Iraq to an end, passes health-care reform that actually achieves something close to universal coverage, and sets the country on a course away from a reliance on fossil fuels, Obama would be considered the most important president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
To varying degrees he has done all four. He saw the country through the Great Recession, got us out of Iraq, passed health care reform, and is aggressively moving to address climate change.
But that might not matter:
The trouble is that each victory has come with extraordinary complications.
Upon taking office, Obama quickly passed a large stimulus bill to mitigate the effects of the recession. Since the economy finally reached its bottom at the beginning of 2010, we’ve seen the creation of 14 million private sector jobs. In 2012, Mitt Romney confidently predicted that if he turned Obama out of office and we followed the Romney economic program, unemployment would plummet to 6 percent by the end of 2016. Today under Obama’s policies unemployment stands at 5 percent. Yet wages remain stagnant and economic insecurity is still widespread, despite the availability of jobs. Obama wasn’t able (and arguably didn’t attempt) to reverse the decades-long trends that hamstring Americans’ economic fortunes.
On Iraq, Obama followed through on his promise to remove American troops and end George W. Bush’s catastrophic war, but the country has not released its hold on us. The corrupt sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki alienated and oppressed its Sunni citizens, allowing ISIS to thrive. Obama is still struggling with the aftermath of the war, as will his successors.
On health care, by passing comprehensive reform, Obama did what Bill Clinton failed to do and what Democrats had spent decades trying to accomplish. But though the Affordable Care Act is a huge success in many ways, with millions of Americans newly insured and all people able to get coverage regardless of their health history, the fact that it was essentially a gigantic kludge – a complicated fix laid on top of an already absurdly complicated system – has limited its ability to provide universal coverage or eliminate the pathologies of a profit-driven health care system.
And on and on and on, but much was accomplished:
There are hundreds of other decisions and accomplishments one could point to over the last seven years as being of great consequence, but any list would have to include the nuclear agreement with Iran, the normalization of relations with Cuba, new Wall Street regulations, saving the American auto industry, ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, ending discrimination against gays in the military and pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage, and avoiding the kind of major scandal that plagued so many of his predecessors. …
Whatever you think of him, it’s looking like Barack Obama did indeed change the country’s trajectory, by doing pretty much what he said he would.
He also knew what he was getting into. This is how he talked about that with the New Yorker’s David Remnick:
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Nancy LeTourneau adds this:
Are there victories in politics that don’t come with extraordinary complications? Perhaps. But if so, they are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time “we just try to get our paragraph right,” celebrate the partial victories, and move on to the next challenge.
And all tears are idle:
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
That’s from a bit of sentimental nonsense written in 1847 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Some things never change.