As former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did before him, President Obama found himself in the unenviable position of having to serve as the nation’s healer in chief on Wednesday night. In this case, however, he also faced the additional challenge of having to strike a fine balance between honoring the shooting victims and survivors and invoking the need to reset the tone of public discourse.
Addressing an audience of more than 13,000 people gathered at the University of Arizona, Obama eulogized each of the six people who died as a result of Saturday’s rampage, recalling something special about each one, such as Dot Morris, whose husband of 50 years unsuccessfully tried to shield her from the bullets, and Judge John Roll’s 40 years of service to the nation’s legal system. But as the father of two daughters with whom he shares an extraordinary closeness, Obama appeared to feel and speak most profoundly about nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green who, he said, “showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age.” He also praised the heroes of that tragic day who braved the chaos to tackle the gunman and helped save lives.
“Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us. It raises the question of what, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?” the president asked.
There is no way of knowing exactly what provoked Jared Lee Loughner’s senseless behavior, nonetheless, for the past several days there has been much finger pointing in the direction of outspoken conservatives like Rep. Michelle Bachmann (Minnesota) and Sarah Palin, who are fond of using gun references to target Democratic opponents. Obama acknowledged that “it is part of our nature to demand explanations,” but implored Americans to resist the urge to place partisan blame on either side of the political spectrum for being the spark that ignited Loughner.
“[W]hat we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility,” Obama said. “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
The president, whose approval ratings have inched back to the 50% mark in the past two months, has received widespread praise for the speech, most of which he wrote himself. “As I listened, it was clear that his speech was delivered to the broad segment of reasonable people in the country—not the haters who will turn it around on him,” said Dr. Larry Berman, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis. “They’re a minority, but he’s astute enough to recognize that the majority of people are in the middle of American politics.”
Even at the height of his popularity, nobody ever deemed Obama emotive; in fact, he has sometimes been criticized for being too cool and professorial. Dr. Robert Smith, a San Francisco State University political scientist, said that the president set absolutely the right tone. “He wasn’t emotional. It was an elegant and well-reasoned discourse that was not out of his character,” Smith said. “And he served his purpose of trying to bridge the differences between the right and the left, not just for this situation, but a little bit longer.”
Both Smith and Berman also were struck by the president’s near reverence for Christina, whom he recalled multiple times throughout his speech.
“He evoked memories of all the people killed but talked a lot about her dreams and aspirations and the whole notion of the nobility of public service,” Berman said. “It was very inspiring and Kennedyesque. It has been a long time since we’ve heard a president, and him specifically, talk like this.”
Only time will tell how much of an impact the Obama’s message will actually have or for how long, but according to Berman, it was a defining moment for his presidency. “We’ll have to see what happens tomorrow when politics as usual starts,” he said.
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