As President Obama is inaugurated for a second time, the biggest political surprise is that gun control is now key to his political legacy.
Despite the shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the mass murders at a Colorado movie theater, the president stayed away from gun control during his first term.
Now, in the aftermath of the Connecticut school shooting, polls show the general public — and specifically the president’s core, liberal political base — expect him to use the political mandate that comes with reelection to go bold on gun control.
Until recently his political base had no expectations about gun control. It just wanted him to be more aggressive in fighting GOP obstructionism on budget deals. The Obama White House responded by refusing to be scared by the “fiscal cliff” and, so far, refusing to negotiate spending cuts with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling.
Beyond budget fights, the Obama second-term agenda was supposed to be about passing comprehensive immigration reform.
There is also hope for improving the nation’s lagging school performance and dealing with global warming.
At the far end of the president’s famous “Hope and Change” agenda is a new vision for foreign policy with more focus on Asia — and the rise of Chinese military might — as well as replacing U.S. reliance on a budget-heavy military with increased use of alliances and diplomacy.
And the president planned to protect the No. 1 legacy of his first term: universal healthcare.
But a new political reality dawned after the Newtown shooting.
The president was bluntly asked in a White House news conference: “Where’ve you been?” on gun control. He responded curtly that the shooting had been a “wake-up call.”
And before any Inaugural balls, the president appeared at the White House with schoolchildren who implored him to do something about gun violence.
White House aides pledged to use their official power to push for new gun-control legislation, while unofficial groups tied to the president’s reelection promised to get involved as well.
The story of President Obama and guns started just after his first election.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) used the victory of a liberal Democrat to create fears among gun owners that the government would confiscate all guns.
President Obama did nothing close to that. And gun-rights advocates scored a big win when the Supreme Court, in a long-awaited ruling, reaffirmed that Americans have the right to own guns.
But public concern about gun-related deaths also picked up steam during the first term. There were mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado and Wisconsin — as well as record gun deaths in the president’s home city of Chicago.
Still, the president looked the other way.
The NRA kept up the pressure by using Republicans in Congress to go after the Obama Justice Department for a failed effort to halt gun trafficking to Mexico — “Fast and Furious.”
This past summer, the House of Representatives took the extraordinary step of voting to hold Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderDem rep: Jim Crow's 'nieces and nephews' are in the White House Obama to attend Pittsburgh Steelers owner's funeral Ex-Uber employee who spurred sexual harassment probe to lead new publication MORE in contempt of Congress over his role in the botched operation.
According to the NRA leadership, Fast and Furious was part of an elaborate conspiracy by the Obama administration to create a pretext for restricting and confiscating the guns of law-abiding Americans.
Never mind that the program began during the Bush administration.
Why was the NRA pushing Congress to take action on such a ludicrous, baseless conspiracy theory?
As I wrote in The Hill at the time, the NRA wanted the president on the defensive. It was also “feeling pressure” because a smaller, more extreme gun-rights group, the Gun Owners of America, argued the NRA was too moderate.
I added: “Fear of losing members has made the NRA push the political limits in the name of self-preservation. The line keeps getting pushed further and further into bizarre, nonsensical conspiracy theories — because that is what excites their base.”
The pressure being exerted by the NRA to scare the president away from any gun-control legislation did not end with Fast and Furious.
Last month NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre said his group’s answer to school shootings was to have armed guards in every school. Incredibly, he said this was not the time to talk about gun control.
In opposing common-sense gun-safety measures under consideration by the president, the NRA now finds itself at odds with the general public and its own membership.
Polls show the NRA membership favors stronger background checks for gun buyers. And a Pew poll taken last week found 85 percent of Americans favor universal background checks on gun buyers, including at gun shows.
So now the pressure on the president to end the gun slaughter is bigger than any nasty tactics coming from the NRA.
That’s why gun control is now the surprising center of the president’s second-term legacy.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.