President Obama, in his year-end interview on "Meet the Press" Sunday, was asked what his priorities were for the first year of his second term. He listed four: immigration reform, stabilizing the economy through debt reduction and infrastructure repair, generating more energy production, and protecting the middle class from higher taxes.
Only when he was pressed by the moderator, David Gregory of NBC News, did the president mention gun control. He was reminded of his emotional visit to Newtown, Conn., where the 20 children were gunned down in an assault weapons shooting spree. In remarks there, Obama had said that "something fundamental has to change" and that everybody, including himself, had to do some "soul searching."
Gregory pointedly asked Obama, "Do you have the stomach for the political fight for new gun-control laws?" Obama said he has always supported the banning of assault weapons, multiple-bullet clips and cartridges, and background checks on their purchasers, and that he continued to do so. He added, "(T)he question is: are we going to be able to have a national conversation and move something through Congress?" He said he'd "like to get it done in the first year," based on specific proposals given him by Vice President Joe Biden's new task force.
As to the proposal of National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre for putting armed security guards in all schools, Obama said he was "skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools," and that he believed most Americans shared that skepticism.
The president said he intended to "call in all the stakeholders together," Republicans and Democrats, "anybody" including a "vast majority of responsible gun owners ... who recognize that we can't have a situation in which somebody with severe psychological problems" can get the kinds of assault weapons used in Newtown.
He did not specify whether those "stakeholders" would include LaPierre and other NRA members who have already made up their minds that, in their favorite slogan, "guns don't kill people, people do." The fact is that the "national conversation" Obama hopes to stir has been going on for years and has been intensified anew by the Newton tragedy.
Only days after that attack, the "conversation" took on added urgency when an apparently deranged man in upstate New York set a fire and then gunned firefighters down when they responded to it. Scarcely a day goes by when there is not further cause for Americans to think about the national shame of gun violence against innocent victims.
The notion of a comprehensive response to the gun mayhem is fine, including further examination of the need for more and better treatment for the mentally disturbed who might get their hands on mass-murder weapons. Obama also cited Abraham Lincoln's dictum that, with public opinion on your side, there's nothing you can't do, and he pledged to offer a legislative package with "my full weight behind it."
As for his own sense of urgency, the president said of the Newtown horror that it was "the worst day of my presidency, and it not something I want to see repeated." In naming Biden to head up the administration's quest for the next step forward, he has chosen the logical subordinate, as a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who wrote the 1994 legislation that first banned assault weapons and who fought hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to renew it 10 years later.
Beyond Biden's history in the fight for stronger gun control, he brings passion and an open willingness to take on the NRA that Obama, for all his demonstrated empathy for the victims, has not seemed to convey.
Why can't this president push for re-enactment of the assault weapons ban right now while public revulsion against the Newtown scene remains fresh, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has urged? With so much else on his plate, the rest can come later, as a broader answer to dealing with the American gun culture is developed.
Jules Witcover is a nationally syndicated columnist.