WASHINGTON – The move by the White House on Wednesday to feature four children at President Barack Obama’s gun-control news conference set into motion a new debate over the role of young people on the political stage.
In unveiling his proposals to address gun violence, Obama was accompanied by four children who had written to him in favor of stricter firearms laws in the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which killed 20 children and six adults.
The prominence of children in Obama’s presentation prompted an immediate backlash from some conservatives. The right-leaning Drudge Report website ran a photo of Obama high-fiving one of the children gathered at the White House along with the headline “Let’s play take the guns.”
The child-focused news conference also came a day after the National Rifle Association invoked the president’s daughters in a provocative Web video, a move that White House press secretary Jay Carney criticized as “repugnant and cowardly.”
The focus on children in the political arena is inevitable in the wake of a shooting tragedy that took place at an elementary school, experts said. But they said there are key distinctions between the NRA ad and the White House’s use of children onstage — as well as the deployment of children by previous presidents and political candidates.
“Presidents always use props,” said George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who studies presidential leadership and public opinion. “Children are a little more emotional, I suppose. But it is children who’re getting slaughtered in these schools, so who would you bring in if you wanted to talk about children being slaughtered in schools?”
The deployment of children at official political events is nothing new. George W. Bush held the ceremony for his 2002 signing of the “No Child Left Behind” bill at a high school in Hamilton, Ohio. Rep. Nancy Pelosi was famously surrounded by children in the House chamber when she was sworn in as the first female House speaker in 2007.
Candidates for political office have long used children in their campaign ads, a tactic that has been known to backfire on occasion: Former congressman Ben Quayle got in hot water in 2010 for a campaign mailer that featured him playing with two little girls who were not his daughters. (The Quayle campaign later explained they were the candidate’s nieces.)
Where Obama’s event on Wednesday differs is the fact that the children who were included had written to the White House in favor of stricter gun regulations, political analysts said.
“Certainly there have been children at presidential press photo ops in years past, but usually more in a decorative way, not in a policy way,” said Alan Schroeder, an associate professor or journalism at Northeastern University who is an expert in political stagecraft. “I think what’s interesting here is that the children were a reflection, really, of the larger issue — that there was a political component to the children’s presence on the stage with the president — and that might be what’s new and different here.”
In that sense, Wednesday’s gun-control news conference bore echoes of Obama’s 2010 signing of the Affordable Care Act health care law. At that event, the president was accompanied by Marcelas Owens, an 11-year-old boy who became a reform advocate after the death of his uninsured mother.
But Edwards said the White House’s use of children is unlikely to have much impact on the overall debate, particularly as it moves to Capitol Hill.
“Presidents almost never change people’s minds about policies,” he said. “Events do. Tragedies do. And it’s the tragedies, recently, that have softened people up.”