President Obama is no John Boehner. Unlike the famously teary former Speaker, the commander-in-chief is typically calm and collected in policy speeches, relying on facts rather than playing off emotions. His professorial style has drawn the ire of his political opponents, who give him nicknames like the lecturer-in-chief, as well as supporters who want to see more fire.
But as he laid out the executive actions he’s taking to curb gun violence in the East Room Tuesday, the President wiped tears from his face. His emotions were stirred while reflecting on the “college students in Santa Barbara, and from high schoolers at Columbine, and from first graders in Newtown” who had their “inalienable right to life” stripped from them by a barrage of bullets.
He repeated “first graders,” before pausing to rest his arm on the podium, his eyes beginning to fill. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad,” he said with a stream trickling down his nose. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
It’s not that the President doesn’t cry. He cried while delivering the eulogy at Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau’s funeral last year. He cried during a rousing rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in December. He cried at former Attorney General Eric Holder's retirement ceremony. He cried while talking to campaign staff the day after winning his reelection bid. And, yes, he cried on that fateful day in December when he had to address a grieving nation about the deaths of 20 “beautiful little kids” and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
But the tears the President shed on Tuesday seemed to come from a different place. They were as much about the sadness of the deaths of innocents as they were a recognition of his powerlessness to change the situation. Obama chose to make the speech emotional, inviting family members to stand behind him with buttons depicting their loves ones pinned to their lapels. It was a ceremony designed to create the opposite of closure, to pick at a wound and make it raw again.
Mentions of the kids—in Newtown and on the streets of Chicago— recall a time not too long ago when the President was a bit more hopeful that the violent deaths of so many young children would move lawmakers to act. And the look of anguish that flashed across his face as he wiped away tears was a stark reminder that, once again, the President felt compelled to put forth modest (and vulnerable) executive actions in lieu of Congressional action. And now, as he enters the home stretch of his presidency, time is running out for him to do anything more.
By January 2013, just a couple of weeks after Sandy Hook, Obama had laid out 23 executive actions to address the issue, mainly reforms to data collection and the allocation of resources. The President tried to capitalize off of the nation’s collective anger to get Congress to pass gun reform measures aimed at preventing mass shootings, but the measures failed in the Senate. That failure angered Obama, who delivered a fiery speech from the Rose Garden with former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and victims’ families at his side.
“I believe we’re going to be able to get this done. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it. And so do the American people,” Obama said at the time.
But it’s 2015 and not much has changed. He’s made no progress on Capitol Hill. His efforts to shame politicians into action in the wake of the most recent shootings have been met with disdain. Gun sales went up in the year after Sandy Hook. In the three years since the shooting, many states have expanded gun rights. There have been at least 1,000 mass shootings since the 2013 massacre and yet again, the President is relying on executive action to address the issue. Though the executive actions take aim at loopholes that allow firearm purchases at gun shows to go unchecked, it’s ultimately a modest proposal. And though the President has insisted the rights of responsible gun owners will remain protected, he’s facing fierce criticism from Republicans who argue he’s acting in violation of the Second Amendment.
And given the continuing streak of mass shootings, President Obama will likely have another occasion to cry before too long.