WASHINGTON — With a series of domestic and international crises coming to a head at once, President Obama made clear on Sunday that he won't be pouring a great deal of his own political capital into reigniting the debate on the country's gun laws.
During a memorial service, the president offered warm tributes to the 12 victims of last week's mass shooting at the Navy Yard.
But his tone also had an edge of frustration that was absent from his December remarks at the memorial honoring the victims of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the last major mass shooting in the U.S. where 20 young children and their teachers were slain. There he choked back tears and set the goal — which would prove to elude him — of overhauling the nation's gun laws. In Sunday's memorial, he made clear that he's all but given up hope that he can persuade Congress.
"By now, though, it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington," said Obama, who has gone through a withering six months in which he has fought with Republicans on gun laws, immigration and Syria and has faced fierce domestic and international criticism over a series of revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.
For Obama, the all-too-familiar moment of serving as consoler-in-chief after yet another mass shooting comes at one of the most difficult periods in his presidency — leaving him with little time, energy or political capital to re-litigate the gun issue just months after he tried and failed to push Congress to get behind a sweeping overhaul of the nation's gun laws.
Among the emerging domestic crises on his plate: The White House is pushing forward with implementation of Obama's signature health care law in the face of a Republican call for repeal; the federal government appears headed toward a shutdown at the beginning of next month; and Obama and the House GOP are at loggerheads over raising the nation's debt limit.
At the same time, Obama is trying to maintain pressure on Syria's Bashar Assad, whose regime the U.S. intelligence community deemed responsible for a chemical attack last month in his worn-torn country that left more than 1,400 dead.
The president is also trying to take advantage of a diplomatic opening — created by the installation of a new, more moderate president in Iran — to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Obama and Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, will attend this week's annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
While the White House says no meetings are scheduled between the two, the moment seems ripe for a thawing in the tense U.S.-Iran relationship. Obama has expressed cautious optimism about Rouhani, who has said he would like to resolve the nuclear issue and has taken a more conciliatory tone about the USA than his firebrand predecessor.
Adding to the president's worries, his national security team was sorting out details on Sunday of an ongoing hostage situation involving Islamic terrorists at an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi that was popular with Americans and other westerners. Three of the al-Shabab gunmen in the attack, which killed at least 68, had lived in the United States, according to news reports.
On Sunday, he bitterly noted that in other nations — including Britain and Australia — just a single mass shooting pushed lawmakers to rethink their gun laws, while lamenting the murder rate with guns is 10 times higher in the U.S. than other developed nations.
"Yet here in the United States, after the round-the-clock coverage of cable news and after the heartbreaking interviews with families, after all the speeches, and all the punditry, and all the commentary, nothing happens," Obama said.
In the end, Obama said it is the demands of constituents on their representatives that they make "basic, common-sense actions to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people" that will move the debate forward.
While Obama said he is certain that Americans care about the pain that the families of the Navy Yard are enduring, a larger question remains more difficult to answer.
"The question is do we care enough," he said.
From the president's perspective, the answer is likely not the one he wants to hear.