One man declared himself “furious.” The other was solemn. One insisted that Americans “be angry.” The other touted recent reforms already done.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and President Joe Biden both watched in horror as a mass shooting left seven people dead and wounded dozens more at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park. But their responses in the hours after the July 4 massacre were diametrically different, reflecting not just a divergence in temperaments but of their political approaches to the issue of gun violence in America.
Whereas Pritzker demanded that people make politics of the moment — as grisly as it may be — the president initially made just passing reference to the shooting. Later, on the South Lawn, he said America has “more work to do” and called for a moment of silence.
“We’ve got to get this under control,” Biden said. “We’ve got to get this under control.”
Perhaps no issue better encapsulates the Biden administration’s viewpoint and tactics than how it has chosen to tackle the epidemic of gun violence. The president makes no secret of his bolder legislative ambitions. He has called for an assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazines, stronger background checks, greater legal liability for gun manufacturers and a slew of other reforms. But those efforts have been stymied by Republicans in Congress, and he has had to balance dueling demands: righteous indignation of fellow Democrats and the plodding, incremental progress that comes with bipartisan compromise.
That Biden signed into law anything on guns was itself historic given the low bar Congress has set for itself. The bill expands background checks and enhances funds for mental health and school safety services. But it has also left quarters of his party wanting more and fretting that the failure to sustain fire and brimstone on the issue and many others dominating recent news cycles could leave the party’s base dispirited.
Biden’s response Monday to the mass shooting at the Fourth of July parade — America’s birthday marred by an American ritual of violence — seemed flat to many Democrats. And there is fear the piecemeal bill didn’t just sap momentum to continue addressing gun violence but was already giving cover to Republicans. Following the shooting, they worried that it was another lost opportunity to define the stakes of the upcoming midterms.
“He’s missing the boat here. This is our time to dig in and be absolutely furious because these one-half measures are not working. He’s got a real excitability problem,” said Camille Rivera, a Democratic strategist and partner at the progressive firm New Deal Strategies. “Our rights are being infringed upon and then there were two shootings [another in Philadelphia] on the exact day that people are supposed to be celebrating their ‘independence.’ I really don’t understand where this passivity comes from in this situation.”
“We’re not going to change the hearts and minds of Republicans,” Rivera added. “The fight is for independents and Democrats to get up and fight back and come out. And he is not meeting the moment. He has to meet the moment.”
There have been more than 30 mass shootings since Biden signed the bipartisan gun bill into law late last month, a dozen of which were deadly, including three on Monday and another Tuesday in Gary, Ind. Biden was on the ground after the recent massacres in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., eulogizing victims. He’s pushed through a long list of executive actions on guns and delivered a special, prime-time speech where he called it “unconscionable” that a majority of Senate Republicans wouldn’t debate fulsome gun control. He’s on the precipice of seating the first Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives director in years. He has emphasized that the modest gun bill isn’t enough and wants Congress to do more, including raising the age to purchase assault weapons to 21 from 18.
“He needs to characterize the new law as a very good first step,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist group Third Way. But while Bennett’s emphasis was on “first,” he also took issue with the critique that Biden needs to emote each time there’s another mass shooting in the country.
“Biden has given a half dozen angry [and] sorrowful statements and they start to blur,” he said. “There’s not much more his anger will achieve.”
Speaking Tuesday in Chicago before she visited Highland Park, Vice President Kamala Harris warned Democrats not to be deterred, despite the continued challenges.
“We need to end this horror. We need to stop his violence,” Harris said, calling for Congress to have the “courage” to act and renew the assault weapons ban. “And we must protect our communities from the terror of gun violence.”
Aides noted Biden made a deliberate choice to step back from recent gun reform negotiations, deferring to the Senate so as not to overly politicize the proceedings with his presence, which could have endangered GOP involvement. There’s also a belief in the Democratic Party that the bipartisan gun bill won’t bail out Republicans or fundamentally affect the party’s image.
“The vast majority of Republicans who are on the ballot or are opposed to the bill and exposed for their extremism by opposing the bill,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
But Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated at what they perceive has been the White House’s lack of urgency on what some officials and voters feel are the defining issues of the moment.
The critique extends beyond guns. Democrats have criticzed Biden’s seeming lack of fire in responding to a series of crises, including the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights and escalating threats to democracy that grow with every primary win by Republican 2020 election deniers. Some believe he has not adjusted to the punishing tactics of the MAGA Republican Party.
Other Democrats — including Pritzker and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — have stepped into the spotlight to not just denounce the Supreme Court, but demand action on guns and abortion rights. They also are calling out their party for not bringing more partisan passion to the debates.
And while the White House has defended the president’s response, pointing Tuesday to several past speeches he’s given on guns and coming action to help protect access to abortions, others fear that Biden remains trapped in a prior age of political decorum and unquestioning fealty to institutions and has been slow to recognize both the existential threat felt by some of his supporters.
“Everyone is looking for strength and toughness and they feel like the stakes are awfully high,” Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump and moderate Republican strategist who regularly conducts focus groups, said of Democrats who want to hear far more from the president.
“You can’t just hold one press conference or give one speech. It’s constant communication. They feel a sense of urgency,” she said. “‘Talk to us. Tell us what the plan is.’ Democrats are ready to support him.”
Underlying the concerns among Democrats is a fear that the party could lose the gains it has made with suburban voters who Republicans are trying to woo back with appeals to pocketbook issues and concerns over crime and quality of life. Longwell said Democrats she’s heard from are more receptive to organic appeals from politics on guns than scripted approaches.
“Don’t poll test anything. Go say the thing that everyone is feeling: ‘Americans should be able to go celebrate the Fourth of July without getting shot. Kids should be able to go to school without there being a shooting. This is madness,’” she said. “Seize the moral high ground.”
Asked about the creeping sense of dread from Democrats, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday said Biden has spoken forcefully about the urgent need to end the “gun violence epidemic.”
Biden, Jean-Pierre said, “showed urgency. He showed fury, he showed frustration. He spoke to that issue every time he could.”
“There was a bipartisan gun reform piece of legislation that has not been done in 30 years. That matters,” she added. “Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. Is he going to call for more action and do the best that he can? Absolutely.”
But Rivera argues that won’t be enough, and that Biden and Democrats must use the opportunities to channel the anger in the country and turn it onto Republicans.
“Enough is enough. Democrats and the people who voted for him are waiting,” she said. “You’ve got Jan. 6, bombshells, you’ve got the Supreme Court and all of it. It’s like, here you go. Now take everything and move. I don’t know what he’s waiting for.”