President Obama's press conference: Guns and the fiscal cliff

The President held a press conference today which focused on two issues: The fiscal cliff, and gun violence. On the first item there was nothing new. On the second, Joe Biden is forming a committee. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2012 — President Obama delivered a press conference today, in which he discussed the Newtown shooting, measures to reduce gun violence, and fiscal cliff negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner. We learned little new about the fiscal cliff negotiations. Joe Biden will form a committee to deal with gun violence. 

On the fiscal cliff, Obama defended his own plan as “balanced.” He argued that Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would raise tax rates only on people earning above $1 million per year, would actually be a tax cut for “millionaires and billionaires” and would raise taxes on the middle class. He criticized the plan for not including specific budget cuts, then said that he would reject any plan that makes it harder for kids to go to college, or harder to care for disabled kids.

Obama suggested that GOP legislators are having less difficulty saying “yes” to his plan than saying “yes” to him. He noted that it would be hard for an objective observer not to say, “coming off my reelection, I met them more than half way.”

Obama insisted that his plan wasn’t so far from what the Republicans want, claiming that they [the Republicans] have negotiated real spending cuts about which they could be proud. Continuing the idea that this is personal, he observed that Republicans mostly come from districts that he didn’t win, and that he understands that cooperating with him might be bad politics. The suggestion was that Republicans should give in on a few small issues (for instance, the lowest income for raising tax rates) so that they could get a package that’s what they’ve been wanting all along.

He stood firm on the debt ceiling, stating that an argument over it every six or nine months is no way to run a great nation or a great economy. He wants much broader authority to raise the debt. “I will not negotiate around the debt ceiling,” he declared.

Shifting to gun violence, Obama announced that Joe Biden will put together an interagency task force to study the issue and come up with some concrete proposals by the end of January. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will be included on the task force. The Biden task force will look at old proposals that have been widely discussed, but also new ones outside the box. Obama said that the proposals he unveils will include restrictions on “assault rifles” and high-capacity magazines, and improved background checks. Curing the gun violence epidemic that has plagued the United States will now be one of his administration’s top priorities. He will talk further about the issue in his State of the Union Address.

The president observed that no single gun law can solve all our problems with gun violence. We must look at mental health and other issues. He stated his belief that there’s a great deal of room for negotiation, even with groups like the NRA, which is composed of parents who care about their children’s safety. Not everything related to guns is an encroachment on the Second Amendment, he said. “There is a big chunk of space between what the Second Amendment means and having no rules at all, and that space is what Joe’s going to be working on to try to identify where we’ll find some common ground … We will be serious about the safety side of this. Joe will be looking for common ground.“

“We know this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides. . . . But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing.”

Asked by a reporter where he’s been on gun violence, given the string of high-visibility incidents over the last four years, he reminded us that he came into office facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, two wars, his campaign to reform health insurance, and a host of other problems. “I haven’t been on vacation.” 

There has been a shift among pro-gun Democrats in the wake of Newtown. West Virginia Senator Joe Machin, who has an A-rating from the NRA, has announced his shift to favoring stricter gun controls. California Representative Mike Thompson, a long-time hunter and gun rights activist, will lead Democratic efforts in the House to push gun-control measures. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) called Republicans who favor more widespread access to guns and who want to arm teachers and school administrators “testosterone-laden individuals who have blood on their hands for making those comments.” 

Obama was more restrained in his comments, but whether his tone or the tone of House Democrats dominates will help determine whether this “complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides” will remain as divisive as ever.

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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