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Observations on Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service

Praise has been heaped on President Obama for his speech at the Tucson memorial service last Wednesday, from both the right ("terrific” according to John McCain) and the left (“magic” wrote Gail Collins). If you missed it, you can watch the video here, or read the text here.

For the most part, Obama’s speech was a eulogy. The atmosphere was certainly not as solemn a funeral or typical memorial service – the raucous cheers and applause were unlike what you would normally find (although, most services do have moments of cheer or levity). Nevertheless, the remembrances of the six people who lost their lives, and the call to live our lives in a better way to honor their memory, were common features of a eulogy.

A main purpose of the speech was to mark the event as a national one, and thus use it as a means of encouraging the people of the nation to move forward. The President called Gabrielle Giffords’ “congress on your corner” meeting a “quintessentially American scene” and said that those who lost their lives represented “the best in America”. The innocent, hopeful views of nine-year-old victim Christina Taylor Green, in particular, were cited by Obama as an example to live up to: “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.”

The speech was moving in parts. To me, it was most moving during the part when the TV showed Giffords’ husband, the astronaut Mark Kelly, gripping Michelle Obama’s hand in trying to control his emotions while the President said “And I want to tell you – her husband Mark is here and he allows me to share this with you – right after we went to visit, a few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues in congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes for the first time!”

Indeed, as many commentators said afterwards that they thought, with this speech, Obama made the strongest emotional connection with the American people since entering the White House. The shootings were certainly traumatic for the country. It seemed that people were looking from the President and the memorial service a chance to mark the event and the lives lost, and regain a sense of order. From that perspective, Obama met if not exceeded expectations.

What about the political benefit to Obama from this? It may appear harsh to ask a tactical question given that it was a memorial service, but pundits have been quick to point out that other presidents had reaped political gains in the past from national tragedies. In particular, they saw how Bill Clinton was able to use his address following the Oklahoma City bombings to re-establish his presidency: it was an “I feel your pain” moment that Clinton leveraged to launch a criticism of the right that put his political opponents on the defensive.

Obama did have a political objective to his speech – let’s not be naïve; nor should it be seen as a bad thing to be political – and he was, I believe, successful at achieving that objective. Essentially, the goal was this: use the occasion to re-assert that politics is hampered by partisanship and what is needed is more civility in the political sphere. This has been a common theme of his since he first started campaigning for president. But the message has taken on a new, different slant over the past couple of years, as calling for “civility” has been an unsubtle code for attacking the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, the shock-jocks Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and anyone else on the right. And, following the Tucson shootings, liberals said the main lesson was that the attack showed the need for less vitriol and more civility.

Obama, of course, is too clever to just come out and say this outright, like liberal commentators Paul Krugman and Jonathan Alter have, knowing that he would come off as partisan. So instead, his message was slipped into his speech, hoping that it would sound eminently reasonable. Consider this passage of the speech:

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

Note that the part in the middle is a nod to those who have been critical of liberals jumping to conclusions: “it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not.” But after this head-fake, Obama is back to re-asserting that we need more civility, which is exactly the message that leading liberals have been hammering home all the past week.

What Obama leaves unsaid is that he believes there is some connection between public discourse and the Tucson attack. It did not “cause this tragedy”, but it must have some connection, or otherwise why bring it up at all on this occasion? Obama’s stab at providing a rationale for his prescription is vague boiler-plate (“help us face up to the challenge of our nation”), but it is implied that the lack of civility is the number one issue raised by Tucson. And then, to top it all off, the president leverages the memories of the fallen to try to obtain emotional support for his politics, as he claims the need for civility is necessary in order to “make them proud”. In other words, the victims would want us to get the Tea Party to tone down their rhetoric.

This style of this passage is convoluted and it is, indeed, indicative of Obama-speak. We can see this approach in his book The Audacity of Hope, and onwards. Obama typically recognizes different points of view on a particular subject, but then goes on to state his own view as an assertion that we are supposed to accept, not because it is supported by evidence or argument, but simply because it is coming from someone who is reasonable. Obama is praised as a speaker, but in fact his method is to run interference and to make his arguments indirectly. His language obfuscates, and that, as George Orwell might say, is a political problem.

Immediately following the shootings, liberals blamed the Tea Party and the right for the Tucson shootings. As it became clear that Jared Loughner was a disturbed individual, many liberals changed tack, saying that while conservatives did not "directly cause" the attack, they were still to blame. This argument was wearing thin with every day that elapsed. However, one of Obama's achievements in his speech was his resurrection of the liberal argument. He could cite the squabbling on both the left and right and appear to rise above it, all the while getting his essential argument across. 

Whether Obama’s speech becomes a major turning point his presidency, as some have suggested, is really not possible to know right now. But in the short term, the speech appears to have been a big success for him, achieving both its obvious memorializing objectives, as well as its less-obvious political ones.

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