President Obama, tired and clearly emotional, made another pitch for Congress to act on new gun restrictions Monday evening in Connecticut. His task was nearly impossible on its face: to translate the fury and urgency of the boisterous crowd in front of him into a wave that could sweep away opposition in Congress.
Speaking from Hartford, the president was introduced by Nicole Hockley, a mother of two sons who attended Sandy Hook Elementary. The younger was killed in the shooting on December 14. Her husband Dan by her side, Hockley explained how she and other advocates insisted on change in Connecticut's state capitol. They won, she insisted, with a combination of love and logic — the same combination that might convince Congress. "Do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy," Hockley said.
The president came out to a huge ovation, responding to shouts of "I love you" with "I love you, too," as he usually does. But he clearly lacked the energy he showed on the campaign trail or during his 2011 call for action after the Giffords shooting. At times slightly slurring his speech, often stumbling over words, the president's demeanor was a strong reminder of his investment in the issue. Reminding the audience that he'd once said the massacre at Newtown was the worst day of his presidency, he indicated that a day on which new gun reforms failed would "be a tough day for me, too."
His case was simple. The new legislation in Connecticut was, as Hockley indicated, a result of passionate advocacy for change. Focusing heavily on the contentious issue of background checks, the president alternated between rational and emotional appeals. Ninety percent of Americans agree on expanded background checks, he reminded the audience, as he did in his last gun speech: "How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything? And yet, 90 percent of Americans agree on this." He pointed to support from law enforcement, NRA households, Republicans. "If our democracy is working the way it's supposed, and 90 precent of the people agree on something in the wake of a tragedy, you'd think that this would not be a heavy lift."
But it is a heavy lift, and Obama is clearly feeling the strain of lifting. At times he lashed out at his Republican opposition, railing against "political stunts" like a proposed filibuster of the gun package and insisting that the issue went beyond vote-counting in the Senate. "This is not about me. This is not about politics," he said. "This is about doing the right thing for all of the families who are here that have been torn apart by gun violence." What's more important, he asked Congress, "our children, or an A grade from the gun lobby?"
The most poignant moments came as Obama reminded the audience in Connecticut and watching from a distance of what was under consideration. It's often said, he noted, that some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time when they become victims of gun violence. But not always.
The kids at Sandy Hook were where they were supposed to be. So were those moviegoers in Aurora. So were those worshippers in Oak Creek. So was Gabby Giffords. She was at a supermarket, listening to the concerns of her constituents. They were exactly where they were supposed to be.
At one point the president got choked up, twisting his mouth to the side as he tried to retain his composure. Speaking of Nicole Hockley, he told the audience something that she'd told him — that her only hope was that her murdered son might still be able to visit her in her dreams. It was a powerful recollection, one to which the audience in the room in Connecticut visibly responded.
Some of the people in that room, families of victims of the Sandy Hook murders, joined the president on Air Force One as they traveled back to Washington to lobby members of Congress. It's an attempt to force his congressional opponents to feel for themselves the emotion that's obviously affecting him as the grinding political process moves forward.
At least one of the president's opponents made his response public in the middle of Obama's speech.
Obama's remaining hope is that the Senate Minority Leader will at least be forced to explain that decision to Nicole Hockley in person.