Barack Obama’s determination to enact a gun control measure in the wake of the Connecticut shootings could transform his place in history.
Success, which is anything but assured, given the lobbies arrayed against him and the many failures of such measures, could upend more than two centuries of American tradition. It also could boost the president into the pantheon of liberal presidents, placing him beside Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson as the principal progressives in modern American history.
This may seem discordant with the prevailing view of Obama as a reluctant warrior, a halting leader, an eager compromiser whose opponents are more vocal and more committed than he or his supporters. And on the surface, Obama’s accomplishments may seem to pale next to those of FDR and LBJ, both of whom passed multiple pieces of major legislation and whose programmatic principles fit neatly under the two-word thematic umbrellas of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Obama lacks such an overarching template, and his signature achievements — overhauls of health care and financial services to accompany a potential victory on gun control — would be more modest in number than those of Roosevelt (scores of alphabet-soup initiatives in just a hundred days, not to mention the Second New Deal) and Johnson (a war on poverty, housing programs, grand civil rights victories and sprawling educational enterprises).
All that is true. But with a victory on guns, Obama would deserve an exalted place not because he could match those who came before him program for program or initiative for initiative but because, unlike them, he would have achieved major liberal goals that had eluded his predecessors for generations.
The first, of course, is a comprehensive overhaul of the health care system, which accounts for about one-seventh of the economy, arguably affecting more Americans more deeply than any measure promoted by any president ever.