Why Gun-Violence Groups Are Losing Patience With Joe Biden
This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up HereGet stories such as this delivered to your email inbox
For the first few years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the White House persuaded immigration activists to hold their fire. The incoming Obama team had to first rebuild the economy and make sure Detroit’s automakers didn’t shutter after the 2008 financial meltdown. After that came an enormous healthcare overhaul. Then Supreme Court nominations, a Republican takeover of Congress, and the President’s own re-election.
And then. And then. Then. It seemed like there was always something that kept immigration off the forefront. In 2014, the long-standing frustrations that immigration rights advocates had felt were about to boil over. At the Annual Opening Gala of the National Council on La Raza – the umbrella group for advocacy and social services now known as UnidosUS – Obama was blamed. “Deporter in chief” burned, especially coming from the head of one of the largest Latino organizations in the country whose alumni had embedded throughout the Obama Administration.
It clearly hurt the President, who had won re-election in 2012 with the backing of 71% of the Hispanic vote despite activists’ already deep frustrations with his first-term inaction. Two days after the gala, Obama took up his own defense: “I think the community understands I got their back and I’m fighting for them.” And a few months later, Obama rolled out expanded executive actions that—had the Supreme Court not curbed his powers—would have expanded protections to almost 5 million undocumented immigrants. Deportations dropped to their lowest level since 2007, during Obama’s last year as president.
However, the alarm had been raised. Distrust was an open characteristic of the White House’s relationships with immigration groups from that point on. As Obama oversaw the deportation of close to three million people over eight years, protests flared. And while his efforts to patch the immigration system helped in the short term, they didn’t all last. Donald Trump, who had made anti-illegal immigrants a part of his identity immediately began to dismantle protections.
Why is this important in Washington now? To channel former President George W. Bush’s mangled deployment of a cliché: “Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again!’” As gun-violence-prevention groups work to build support for moves to reduce deaths, they’re also studying what happens when allies give an Administration a pass, especially when a political majority has every chance to flip Congress into Republicans’ hands after November’s elections. And they don’t like the historical precedent of deferring to the White House, especially one whose power may have an expiration date.
“He’s a friend to the movement, sure. You can refer to him as such. But he’s not a leader, and that’s what we really need,” says Zeenat Yahya of March For Our Lives, the youth movement that emerged in the wake of the 2017 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
March For Our Lives and Guns Down America on Friday published Biden’s report card on gun violence, and the grade is a D+. This timing coincides with the one year anniversary of Biden’s appearance in the Rose Garden with an unfulfilled agenda to reduce mass shootings. “The reality is: a year later that commitment has proven to be false,” says Igor Volsky, the co-founder and executive director of Guns Down America.
In conversations with leaders of the groups, it’s clear this isn’t the verdict they wanted to deliver. Although neither group is explicit political, there’s a good chance almost all those in their official or unofficial positions voted for Biden. He ran a strong campaign against gun violence. For good reason, they thought Biden—who managed mass shooting response and outreach for Obama as the consoler-in-chief—was their guy.
However, as immigration reform’s history shows, having a strong affinity for politicians isn’t a substitute to taking action. MoveOn’s protest against the Bush Administration was met with no hesitation by anyone. The political world was not surprised when the once-obscure network super-rich conservatives and libertarians took control of a political engine that would become as short-handed than The Koch Brothers. When its immigrant-rights allies started protesting at the gates, Obama White House was aware. Biden is facing a difficult task in forming effective coalitions despite having all the prerogatives of the presidency.
To be sure, Biden alone can’t fix the scourge of gun violence in this country, where privately owned guns outnumber people. The White House released a statement of condolences and thoughts following the recent mass shooting in Sacramento. There’s always the call for action, but then it falls by the wayside. Politicians are unable to hold themselves accountable for their actions. The stakes for these activists are far too high.
It was not so long ago that a White House warning to stop criticizing was sufficient. President Bill Clinton presided over both Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act—now widely seen as major setbacks for LGBTQ rights—yet was still welcomed in 1997 as the first sitting commander-in-chief to speak to the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala. Actors in the White House were still viewed as Washington’s political power center and had to respect those poles. The only way to get along is with your friends.
Things change. The Forever Wars, the economic crisis of 2008 and the last few years’ reckoning on gender, race and policing have left Americans rightly sour on trusting those with power. Gallup has been measuring the change since 1993, and its results should alarm anyone who seeks authority as well as public trust. Public confidence in the presidency itself hit a high of 58% in June of 2002, as the Bush Administration was leading a seemingly successful disposal of the Taliban in Afghanistan but still hadn’t expanded the Global War on Terror into Iraq. In June 2008 that number fell to 26% and it remained at 38% through June 2009. In other words, it’s easy to ignore the call coming from a number that begins (202) 456-xxxx when so few people are heeding the words being dispatched from the West Wing.
As gun-violence-prevention groups look to keep Biden moving in the right direction, their public break with the White House certainly comes with risks. They know that their public criticisms will not win them many friends, even though no one would criticize those who run the policy review. But like any maturing movement, gun-violence-prevention activists are starting to have their confident years. They aren’t asking for permission the way they used to, and deference is less attractive than before. They have mailing lists and text-messaging databases that can rival most national political groups, and they’re built from grassroots followers who will do far more than write checks or retweet a meme.
And if the Biden White House doesn’t get that, they should. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that some current Administration officials were holding signs just outside the White House gates to protest Obama’s immigration policies.
Washington is the place to be. Subscribe to the D.C. Brief newsletter.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME