Sounding Presidential

Barack Obama sends a message to both parties, but will they pay attention?

Yesterday Barack Obama did something that too many elected officials seem congenitally unable to do: he rose above partisan politics and spoke to the nation as a leader should, rather than as another politician angling for personal advantage. Speaking in Tucson at the memorial event held to honor the victims of Saturday’s shooting spree, the president rose to the challenge, avoiding any temptation to point fingers and score political points. Instead the president sounded positively presidential, delivering the kind of message that America’s leaders are expected to deliver in troubled times: a message that emphasizes our common goals and focuses on the promises of the future rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents.  And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that 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 our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.

Interestingly, the three words underlined in the paragraph above – “it did not” – were not included in the prepared text issued to the media, but were uttered by the president during his speech. The inclusion of these three words suggests that the president, or his team – or both – eventually realized that it was very important to emphasize that the madness that drove Jared Lee Loughner to kill six people and wound thirteen more had nothing to do with politics. Like the vast majority of political assassins, Jared Lee Loughner was a loner disconnected from reality. The left’s desperate, knee-jerk attempts to describe him as a person moved to madness by the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin or anyone else on the right were disingenuous at best and downright embarrassing at worst. To his credit, Barack Obama never came close to traveling down that particular road. While he carefully steered a middle course – as a president should – Obama’s express rejection of the notion that political opinion and discourse was a root cause of this tragedy is about as stinging a rebuke of the left as we’re likely to witness during this administration.

Speeches are about style as well as substance and there are always going to be those for whom the former will count more than the latter. During George W. Bush’s administration, some pundits couldn’t bring themselves to dispassionately evaluate the substance of a Bush speech because they couldn’t get past his down-home delivery. Barak Obama’s speaking style elicits the same kind of criticism, albeit from another direction. In a classic Obama speech, the presidential chin is raised defiantly toward the stars and the clipped, staccato delivery suggests – to some – an inherent smug sense of superiority. Personally, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but nor have I ever felt especially connected to Barack Obama when he has delivered a speech. Though I grew up a stone’s throw from where the president first developed his “community organizing” resume, whenever I listen to the president, it sounds like he was raised on a different – far more privileged – planet than I.

Last night, I was able to get past all of those obstacles and I was thankful for the opportunity to do so. Either Barack Obama, or his speechwriters – or both – woke up to the reality that is America in 2011. Heated discourse – which is exactly the sort of discourse that has dominated American politics throughout American history – had nothing at all to do with the Tucson shootings last Saturday. Crazy people continue to do crazy things. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will always be.

“I believe we can be better.” Barack Obama said yesterday. “Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe.  We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.  I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite.”

Exactly right. Now, here’s hoping that both parties – and the current administration itself – take this particular message to heart. We can do much better, but it will be up to our leaders to prove that important point.