Last week we witnessed another horrific shooting on a college campus. President Obama's speech immediately following the tragedy in Oregon was praised by supporters as angry and honest — and criticized by opponents as inaccurate, premature, and politicizing. We expect presidents to speak to the nation after a tragic event. It's possible for them to do this in a way that is a pure mix of ceremony and boilerplate, but more often these speeches carry messages about the values that apply to the situation.
Presidential addresses like these are about reassurance and acknowledgment. To do this, presidents have to say something about the nature of the problem and the possibilities for moving forward. Some of Obama's critics have suggested that after a tragedy, it's time to heal rather than to propose policy solutions. But others have replied that in this case, healing requires attention to policy, attention to what we will do to ensure this doesn't happen again.
In identifying the problem and its solution, the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's speech were closely related. The way Obama framed the issue seems to have deeply resonated with his supporters. He noted the number of times he has already addressed the nation after gun violence. "Thoughts and prayers are not enough," the president said, establishing a premise that the rest of the speech would manifest: What's needed is national policy action. And his speech left little doubt that he blames his political opponents for preventing policy change.
Although anger and advocacy appear to have charged Obama's supporters, it's my professional prediction that last week's remarks are unlikely to go down in history as exemplary presidential rhetoric. The reason? Like much of what Obama has said and done in office, his words last week fit neatly into existing divisions. While critics complain that the president "politicized" the issue, they fall short of the actual problem: Obama neglected to politicize the issue in a new way. Polls suggest that, as with many other questions, the American public is closely divided on the question of gun laws. Understanding the gun control debate in terms of big government liberals versus constitutional conservatives brings us back to the same old stalemate, and absent the kind of legislative majorities that allowed the Affordable Care Act to happen, nothing will change.
Jeb Bush's comments about the Oregon shooting and its implications for gun control — now abbreviated by his critics as "stuff happens" —represent a different set of problems. Bush's comments illustrate a few simple things about rhetoric at the presidential level: The phrasing and symbolism matter. Bush's larger point, that events occur and we should weigh many factors before pursuing policy solutions, is sensible enough on its face. But the phrasing came off as tone-deaf. It reduced the scale of the event on its own and failed to acknowledge its significance. And the sound bite generated by the remarks — "stuff happens" — lent itself to an interpretation of his remarks that was hardly advantageous politically. Obama has blundered into this kind of thing a few times, too, with "you didn't build that" and his comments during the 2008 campaign about "clinging to guns and religion."
Both sets of comments provide clues about why presidential rhetoric matters — not because it instantly changes minds about the substance of the issue, but because it provides a powerful and central frame that supporters and opponents alike use to understand the substance of the issue.
Bush's remarks failed to resonate, while Obama's offered an interpretation that fit too well into existing ideological schema about the gun debate. What could a leader have said that would offer a new political lens on this issue?
Obama's remarks last week linked the Oregon shooting to other events like it that have happened during Obama's presidency — to gun violence that has occurred in theaters and in other educational settings, including the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 dead, 20 of whom were children.
But just as the president told us what Thursday's incident was, he also told us what it was not. Thursday's deaths were not put in context with other gun-related deaths, which include not only homicide but also suicide and accidents. They were stripped of their social context, even though gun violence is strongly connected to social context. Gun violence is more likely to affect African Americans than whites, is correlated with poverty, and occurs more often in some locations than others. About 60 percent of the nation's gun violence occurs in the 50 largest metro areas, while (by my calculation) only about 45 percent of the country's population lives in those 50 areas combined.
The pro-gun control narrative is stuck in a liberty-security frame that relies mostly on fear and imagination to animate support for changing the status quo. In other words, while events like what happened last week in Oregon are tragic and horrifying, they are not representative. They make people feel, at least briefly, like gun violence can happen to anyone. And it can. But statistically, and in people's lived experiences, it's not equally likely to happen to everyone.
Lee Drutman writes today in the New York Times that the side in favor of gun control lacks the organization and energy of the other side. This evaluation strikes me as correct, and I think it's linked to the framing issues mentioned above. It seems unlikely that gun control will attain the status on the policy agenda that health care, economic issues, or civil rights have enjoyed.
It might be more effective instead for the president — in his capacity as leader of the nation but also leader of the Democratic Party — to use his platform to reframe this issue in terms of the party's wider platform. Although matters of economic and racial justice have not dominated the policy agenda in recent decades, they are the focus of the movements that appear most vital on the left. By placing last week's tragedy in the same category with other, more representative incidences of gun violence, Obama could have laid the groundwork for a new understanding of the issue.
Reframing the problem wouldn't have required Obama to talk about inequality in his speech immediately following the Oregon shooting. He simply could have grouped the incident within the larger problem of gun violence, instead of just with other high-profile, seemingly random mass shootings. The president's weekly address or a later speech would be a better time to elaborate on the themes of justice and equality.
This gets at a crucial function of presidential rhetoric. It not only offers ways to connect seemingly disparate issues, it also has the potential to infuse political debates with moral purpose. The president's words won't fundamentally change the substance of an issue or the interests invested in it. But it can shift the focus from process — from questions about enforcement or about whose fault it is that nothing happened last time — and from old frames, like the liberty versus security one that has resulted in a persistent stalemate over the years. Major shifts in how Americans interpret the Constitution have been accompanied by presidential arguments about equality and justice. Furthermore, policy change requires energy and organization, and that requires people to understand a problem as their own.
As long as incidents of gun violence remain episodic and uneven, such an understanding will probably require political creativity, not a rehash of familiar arguments. The president isn't wrong to politicize the issue. Politics is how we address problems. But he missed an opportunity to politicize the gun question in a new and meaningful way.