Sen. Bernie Sanders was all smiles at Tuesday night's State of the Union address as President Barack Obama barely mentioned gun control.
After an early promise to forgo the “traditional list of proposals for the year ahead” in order to “focus on the next five years, ten years and beyond,” the president made just one reference to "protecting our kids from gun violence."
The de-emphasis of gun control
an issue which the president has engaged recently through an executive order, a town hall meeting and a range of official statements
— came as a surprise to many observers, and a relief to Sanders, who is maintaining a complex stance on guns in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders' main rival, frontrunner Hillary Clinton, has been attacking Sanders' comparatively less restrictive stance on the right to bear arms. Early previews of Obama's speech indicated he would continue to emphasize guns.
Instead, Obama focused on income inequality and bringing corporate interests to heel, both of which are subjects Sanders has long championed and upon which he has built most of his campaign message.
“After years of record corporate profits," Obama said, "working families won't get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else, or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.”
The president continued with this rhetorical hay-maker: “Food stamp recipients didn't cause the financial crisis. Recklessness on Wall Street did.”
Gun experts were struck by the president's shift away from one of his signature issues.
“I was a little surprised, considering that the issue has taken center stage lately,” Real Clear Policy editor Robert VerBruggen told AMI Newswire.
“Maybe the administration figured they'd covered it with the executive actions and of course they're aware they won't be able to pass legislation before the end of Obama's term.”
Sanders, a Vermont independent who sometimes refers to himself as a socialist, has stood apart from other Democrats in his relative support for gun rights. Vermont's open-carry ethos is in stark contrast to the Democratic Party's push for more regulation.
Sanders has also emerged as a surprising challenge to Clinton's presumptive nomination. He is currently within nine percentage points of Clinton in Real Clear Politics' average of polls.
Although Obama and other major Democrats have promised to turn gun control into a winning electoral issue, support for gun restriction has a poor track record at the ballot box. In last fall's off-year elections, Virginia state Democrats heavily emphasized gun safety, and gun control groups outspent gun rights groups by a factor of five. But the Democrats failed to win either chamber of the General Assembly.
Obama has said he will not be making an endorsement in the Democratic contest. He defeated Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and later appointed her as his first secretary of state.
The president's neutrality has not extended to his administration's frequent trial-balloon launcher, Vice President Joe Biden.
“Bernie is speaking to a yearning (inequality) that is deep and real," Biden said on CNN on Monday. "And he has credibility on it.”
Biden added that “Hillary's focus has been on other things up to now” and that “no one questions Bernie's authenticity on those issues.”
Most major polls place Sanders within striking distance in Iowa and ahead in Vermont's own backyard, New Hampshire.