Barack Obama flew to Arizona Wednesday to deliver what may be one of the more politically treacherous speeches of his presidency.
In the hours leading up to his evening address, Washington was gripped by debate over what the president should or should not say about the shooting of a congresswoman and several others by a deranged gunman on Saturday.
After a few days in which the charged atmosphere over the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others outside a Tucson supermarket had begun to calm down, the argument over Obama’s speech ratcheted the intensity back up.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped reignite the discussion, posting a nearly eight-minute video online in which she accused critics who blamed the shootings on her rhetoric of perpetrating “blood libel.”
The White House kept a close hold on the contents of the president’s speech as they worked even in the hours leading up to the address to nail down what the president would say about the horrific attack, which killed six — including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge – and wounded 14, including Giffords, Arizona Democrat.
“The President will devote a significant portion of his remarks to the memory of the victims. He’ll also reflect on how all of us might best honor their memory in our own lives,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
The question was what would come after, or in addition to, the inevitable laments for those lost, the encomiums for those who acted bravely, and the call for the country to grieve, pray and give their support to all those hurt or bereaved.
A speech touching on the need for civility or tolerance is likely to upset those on the right who are still enraged by premature liberal finger-pointing after the shooting at conservative rhetoric. Yet conversely, some on the left were prickly Wednesday toward any implicit rebuke of a rush to judgment.
Nonetheless, the accused murderer, Jared Loughner, has emerged as mentally unstable and incoherent, and there is no evidence he was moved to act by Palin or the Tea Party, as some initially speculated.
“Using this speech to discuss ‘the problems in our political conversation’ … would be taken by conservatives as validating the (disproven) premise that the tone of our political conversation contributed in any way to the shooting,” wrote Marc Thiessen, a former Bush White House speechwriter. “The last thing the president should want is for his speech to set off another round of recrimination between the Right and Left.”
A good part of the consensus in Washington has shifted toward saying that those who immediately blamed “overheated rhetoric” – a subtle dig used almost entirely by liberals to poke conservatives – reacted too quickly.
“The charge: The Tucson massacre is a consequence of the ‘climate of hate’ created by Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Obamacare opponents and sundry other liberal betes noires. The verdict: Rarely in American political discourse has there been a charge so reckless, so scurrilous and so unsupported by evidence,” wrote conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
John Dickerson, writing for the left-of-center Slate magazine, castigated the media and partisans on both sides for rushing to view the shooting in a political and partisan light.
“The issue is speed and lack of restraint,” Dickerson wrote. “The president has the chance to make the case that the speed with which the old battle flared anew is proof that both sides have locked themselves into a self-perpetuating and unproductive cycle. Saturday’s shooting did not create a pause in the confrontation — it accelerated it. This is not just unhealthy; it’s abnormal.”
Some liberals told The Daily Caller privately that if Obama issues a call to “slow down” in rushing to judgment, they would view that as siding with conservatives in the battle over whether the right – and the Tea Party in particular – has gone overboard in its anti-government rhetoric.
Peter Daou, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, said publicly that Obama would likely ignore liberal complaints.
“Obama’s in a tough spot – striking a unifying/healing tone conflicts with telling truth that the language of incitement comes from one side,” he wrote on Twitter.
But experienced political communicators said that Obama could find a way to give a speech that exhorted the nation to unity and civility without being perceived as political.
“There’s a way to do it. Tragedies like this, senseless losses, put things in perspective, and make our discord seem so trivial in comparison to things we all cherish,” said Mark Salter, a long-time speech writer and adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Dan Bartlett, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush, agreed: “I bet he threads the needle.”
Donna Brazile, a long-time Democratic political adviser, said Obama “should also call on us to respect those we disagree with, and ask everyone in the country to come together amid this senseless tragedy. I don’t believe this needs to be a political speech.”
If Obama can pull it off, the speech is likely to help his standing with the country, moving the needle in his favor with the large swaths of the country who tune in to political moments only occasionally.
But another strategist, who did not want to be quoted by name addressing the politics of such a tragic situation and asked not to be identified with either political party, said the risk for Obama was to listen too much to the political debate and begin viewing his speech through that lens.
“The extremes represent vocal minorities on both sides. The bigger question is: What does that persuadable, non-ideological middle of the country think?” the strategist said. “The challenge with this speech is gauging whether the country at large really views the Tucson tragedy as a national moment or as an isolated event, albeit a horrific one.”
“If it’s the latter, there is a great deal of risk involved for a president who could be elevating the tragedy in a way that is at odds with the larger public.”
Indeed, one poll released Tuesday indicated that many Americans view the attempt to paint the shooting as political, or causes by political rhetoric, with a high degree of skepticism. A CBS News survey found that 6 in 10 Americans saw strong rhetoric and the Tucson shooting as unrelated.