WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – The White House kicked off its full-court press on Wednesday to whip up support for President Barack Obama’s new batch of executive actions to regulate guns.
The president knows the majority of conservatives in Congress detest his tactics, but his team sees an opening with the public on popular elements like expanded background checks and mental health funding.
Vice President Joe Biden and Valerie Jarrett, longtime confidante and senior advisor to President Obama, invited media from five strategic cities from around the country in order to sit down and personally lay out the president’s agenda.
News anchors from heavily populated battleground states, like Media General’s WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio, flew in to grill the executive team on the finer points and feasibility of enacting more contested firearm policy changes through unilateral executive action.
Some meetings were on the record, others were held on background.
Biden forcefully made the case that President Obama’s plan is well within his legal authority and will undoubtedly save lives – not mention falling within the scope of popular opinion.
The president’s executive actions would expand the definition of who legally qualifies as a gun dealer, thereby requiring additional background checks, adds more than 200 ATF and FBI agents, and directs the Social Security Administration to red flag recipients with severe mental illnesses who should not be eligible for purchasing firearms.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called the president’s move a “distraction” from his failed policies.
While federal law won’t change, the president argues he’s able to interpret existing policies in a stricter way. But that won’t be a panacea, and the White House knows it.
The VP, who proudly noted his co-authorship of the now-expired Brady Bill, reluctantly acknowledged that congressional GOPers could short-circuit the president’s plan in two ways: withhold funding for gun initiatives or passing legislation in direct opposition to the president’s plan. For instance, explicitly absolving online gun dealers of running background checks.
Senior officials admit the executive branch needs the cooperation of individual states to more fully regulate guns, given the stalemate seen in Congress. Just one day after the San Bernardino massacre, a Republican-led contingent rejected a law that would have stopped suspected terrorists from legally buying guns in the U.S. Other measured, including universal background checks and assault weapons ban, are complete non-starters.
That’s where local press fits into the White House strategy. Their local audiences can lobby local and state lawmakers to pass tighter state-based regulations, bypassing the need for federal action.
In his East Room speech, President Obama also asked Congress to dedicate an additional $500 million to the country’s mental health system, noting the dangers of firearms in the hands of deranged and suicidal gun owners.
Biden rebutted claims that the current round of executive action wouldn’t have stopped recent mass shootings, saying the Virginia Tech shooter – and others like him – wouldn’t have been able to buy guns given their disturbed psychiatric conditions.
When pressed on the $500 million figure, senior officials said the number is an approximation – a budgetary placeholder of sorts – which will largely depend on Capitol Hill’s final mental health reform package.
Congress is poised to pass bipartisan mental health reform legislation in 2016, but lawmakers are still tinkering with the bill’s contents. The president’s half-billion dollar request would theoretically bolster the nation’s existing system and implement newer, stronger safeguards for mentally ill Americans covered under the reform bill.
One sticky wicket is Obama’s professed desire to destigmatize mental illness. His executive actions will simultaneously boost the struggling mental health system and widen the pool of Social Security recipients barred from purchasing guns due to mental health diagnoses.
In other words, some mentally ill Americans might worry about seeking treatment under the expanded system for fear that a black mark might follow them for years to come.
When asked if the White House supports congressional efforts to ease HIPAA restrictions on sharing severely mentally ill patients’ treatment information with caregivers, senior officials signaled their support and said the administration would like to see a more transparent system that works for everyone.
Privacy advocates on the left have already begun making hay of this initiative.
For press not invited to conduct one-on-ones, the White House held a conference call Wednesday afternoon, hosted by Jarrett, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and other key lawmakers.
In the days ahead, the president’s team will continue making his case in a variety of venues.