After criticism, Obama's pivot on gun control gives legislation new momentum

The White House has tilted the gun control debate in its favor by centering its public relations effort around one pivotal message: the legislation deserves a vote.

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After some criticism about how the president wasn’t engaged enough on the hot-button issue at the start of his second term, the White House — for the first time in Obama’s presidency observers point out — has been pulling out all the stops.

President Obama's phone calls to senators, a speech by first lady Michelle Obama and the White House's partnership with the Newtown, Conn. victims' families has altered the political landscape. The gun control bill has a long way to go, but its prospects in the Senate have improved considerably.

“The White House has learned to use all of its assets to move things the way they hadn’t done in the first term,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist.

Simmons noted that the all-encompassing White House strategy became most apparent when Obama invited the families of the children and educators who were killed at the Newtown elementary school to join him on Air Force One when he returned to Washington on Monday.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen everything come together on a communications level, to moving the ball politically and proving strong visuals to cement their message, ” Simmons said. “They’re on top of their strategic game on this issue.”

To be sure, the White House still has a long way to go in terms of a victory on gun control. It remains to be seen if a new bipartisan background check amendment will receive the support of 60 senators when it comes up next week.

And even if a comprehensive gun bill gets through the Senate, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House are slim. Gun-control activists are hoping the House will have to act if the Senate does.

A senior administration official said Obama was able to help push the legislation along by playing “the inside and outside game."

“It’s the meetings with lawmakers, the dinners with Republican senators, and crystallizing the public opinion,” the senior administration official said. “We made it known that 90 percent of the public favored background checks and that pierced through all the other noise.

“We get a lot of grief for...using the outside game, the bully pulpit to galvanize public opinion, but it seems to work,” the official added. “And it’s one thing for Republicans in Congress to say no to the president. It’s another thing for them to say no to overwhelming public opinion.”

Republican strategist Ken Lundberg said Obama is “definitely gaining ground” in the debate, but “he’s still lacking any progress on the substance” of the matter.

“Even backers of the Senate bill admit it won’t prevent another Newtown,” Lundberg said. “As long as 90 percent of the president’s gun control agenda remains stalled, he’s filling out the story, but he’s not shaping the outcome.”

One Democratic strategist added that while Obama helped “accentuate” guns and “move it along,” the new intensity on the legislative effort was driven by a consensus of lawmakers that believe current laws “don’t make sense.”

“Clearly the mood was changing on Capitol Hill,” the strategist said. “You’re not in a good spot when most of the country is for background checks. But Obama going out there and boxing Republicans in was helpful.”

The gun control debate has been roller coaster-like. The National Rifle Association stumbled out of the gates earlier this year, but then regained the upper hand on Obama last month.

Yet, the release of a bipartisan background check bill authored by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has once again changed the political winds. Both Toomey and Manchin have A ratings from the NRA and Toomey is a former head of the conservative Club for Growth.

At the White House briefing on Thursday, press secretary Jay Carney called the credit “widespread.”

“The work that's been done on reducing gun violence in the Senate is to the credit of those who have been engaged in that work on Capitol Hill,” Carney said. “We have obviously been engaged with them in that work.”

But Carney cautioned, “We should not be assigning credit yet. We’re not at the finish line in any of these areas yet.”

Strategists on both sides of the aisle say the lobbying campaign this week helped move the dial in a palpable way.

Vice President Biden appeared alongside Attorney General Eric Holder at one event earlier this week. Michelle Obama entered the gun control debate and fought back tears as she delivered a speech in Chicago this week, focusing on the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at her husband's inauguration. Pendleton was killed days later after being shot.

A pugnacious Obama, appearing in Connecticut on Monday, delivered arguably his most powerful speech on gun control since his emotional address at the Newtown memorial service in December. The jam-packed crowd at the University of Hartford, fed off his energy at one point chanting, “We want a vote! We want a vote!” — a moment tailor-made for cable news, observers say.

But political experts say the more powerful moment came a short time later when 12 Newtown family members of victims from last year’s shooting boarded Air Force One to begin lobbying lawmakers.

While Michelle Obama will likely not participate in other gun-control events, according to administration officials, the president will continue to hit the road to discuss the guns —especially when the House debates a bill.

The White House offensive on gun control will continue Saturday when Francine Wheeler, whose six-year-old Ben was killed in the Newtown shooting, will appear instead of Obama during the president’s weekly radio address.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Carney explained that only one group of people can trump Obama’s bully pulpit on the issue: the victims’ families.

“One thing that has been very clear is that nobody has a more important or powerful perspective on the issue than the families who have lost loved ones because of the scourge of gun violence,” Carney said.