by Jules Witcover

Of all the words spoken, written about, broadcast, googled, tweeted or even just mused over in President Obama's State of the Union address, none were more pointedly delivered than the four in his direct appeal for tighter gun-control legislation: "They deserve a vote."

The president saved the words for the speech's conclusion, after more than an hour-long shopping list of foreign and domestic challenges laid at the feet of a largely dysfunctional Congress. Seldom had the good legislators received more justified marching orders to put up or shut up. He wasn't telling them how to vote -- just to do something.

Obama put the heat on with effective White House speech-writing and timing combined with effective stagecraft, packing the House galleries with gun-violence victims and family members before a television audience of millions. The presence of applauding former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, parents of gunned-down Newtown kids and others constituted a full-court press on the captive audience of House and Senate members.

The argument was thus effectively joined. Second Amendment gun defenders, led by the NRA, and gun-control advocates proceeded to wage an intensified war of words over specific proposals. They have ranged from arming schools, which is favored by the NRA, to flat bans on battlefield-type assault weapons, which the gun lobby fiercely opposes.

At the same time, the president hit the campaign trail in his post-election vow to take his case to the voters. Obama launched a new round of grass-roots rallies and speeches intended to light a fire under Congress to act on his latest proposals, which were drawn up by a task force under Vice President Joe Biden.

The war of words has now obliged the NRA to go into an uncommon defensive crouch. Speculation is increasing that, despite the pressure group's stranglehold on Congress, some tougher anti-gun legislation may actually be wrung from an intimidated Capitol Hill.

While the administration continues to press for restoring the ban on semi-automatic weapons, which Congress let lapse in 2004, a strong consensus seems to be building for tighter background checks on gun shoppers at gun shows, and limits on multi-bullet magazine clips for such weapons.

Behind Obama's demand that the most recent gun-violence victims "deserve a vote" is a broad public consensus that Congress generally is not doing its job, caught in a partisan stalemate that has earned the legislative branch a far higher disapproval rating than the president it constantly bucks.

Together with the continuing tug of war between the White House and Capitol Hill over the budgetary quagmire that keeps Washington dangling over one fiscal cliff or another, Congress remains in a distinctly bad odor with the voters. And as a result of a badly botched presidential election, internal divisions and a brand damaged by extremist candidates last fall, the Republican Party seems to be shouldering most of the blame.

All this, capped by President Obama's post-election pivot to a tougher, less conciliatory posture on a range of issues including gun-control legislation, not only the NRA but the Grand Old Party itself seems to has been taking an almost survivalist attitude.

Sobered by the 2012 election, some Republicans are calling upon their party leaders to acknowledge the erosion of Hispanic and Asian electoral support from the GOP because of its past exclusionary attitudes; these warnings are often met with tired boilerplate. There's nothing wrong with its message, the party hierarchy apparently believes, that better pitchmen than the hapless Mitt Romney can't cure.

That view, put on nationwide display in Republican response to Obama's State of the Union Address by the earnest new party star, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, was unconvincing in its simple rehash. Beyond his admirable efforts to find a compromise path of genuine immigration reform, he came off as a younger preacher from the same pulpit of trickle-down economic and fiscal solutions.

Obama's "they deserve a vote" refrain reflected a general weariness in the country over the inability of both parties in Congress, and the administration as well, to do the work all were elected to perform. Whether the call will generate substantial action remains, sadly, in doubt.


Receive our political analysis by email by subscribing here

Obama's Blunt Challenge to Congress | Politics

© iHaveNet