Obama Rises to the Challenge

The beginning of the president’s speech wasn’t good, and was marked by the sonorous banalities on which White House staffs in times of crisis always insist. “We join you in your grief,” “We mourn with you for the fallen,” “a quintessentially American scene . . . shattered by a gunman’s bullets.” Modern presidents sometimes speak as if their words were crafted by producers for a TV newsmagazine like “Dateline.” This is bad because television producers tend to think their audience is composed of people who require the plonkingly obvious to be repeatedly stated in the purplest prose. The trend should be stopped. Presidents are not anchormen of true-crime shows, or were not meant to be.

I begin grouchily to underscore the sincerity of the praise that follows. About a third of the way through, the speech took on real meaning and momentum, and by the end it was very good, maybe great. The speech had a proper height. It was large-spirited and dealt with big things. It was adroit and without rancor. The president didn’t mourn, he inspirited.

It began to turn when Mr. Obama started to make things concrete. Vaporous talk of victims turned into specific facts about real human beings: Phyllis Schneck was a gifted quilter, Dorwan Stoddard spent his spare time fixing up the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. But the speech came into its own when the president spoke, again in concrete terms, of the condition of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: “I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here.” He had learned that “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.”

This was met with thunderous applause. He repeated the sentence: “Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.” More and deeper applause. Something seemed to shift at this point. Suddenly the president was fully integrated into the text, he was it and it was him. He lauded the heroes who did specific things. To Daniel Hernandez, in the front row: “You ran through the chaos to minister to your boss.” “We are grateful to the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload.” “We are grateful to petite Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer’s ammunition.”

He was saying: We are not a nation of victims, we are a nation in which people work together doing brave things and achieving great outcomes. “Heroism is here . . . just waiting to be summoned.” This is a statement worthy of a president.

Throughout Mr Obama’s career, he has critiqued America and its leadership from an outsider’s stance, from that of an intellectual relatively new to public life. His sound was all faculty lounge. In this speech he celebrated America, and in celebrating it, he aligned himself more closely with the values the American people most justly celebrate in themselves—instinctive courage, idealism, willingness to take the initiative. His remarks reminded me, in fact, of part of the speech Ronald Reagan gave when he first announced for the presidency, which I read the other day in Craig Shirley’s history of the 1980 campaign, “Rendezvous with Destiny.”

Reagan said he saw America as “a living, breathing presence, unimpressed by what others say is impossible, proud of its own success; generous, yes, and naive; sometimes wrong, never mean, always impatient to provide a better life for its people in a framework of a basic fairness and freedom.”

The heart of Mr. Obama’s speech asked a question. The lives of those who died, and the actions of the heroes of the day, pose a challenge. What is required of us now, how do we honor them?

Here, deftly, he addressed the destructive media debate that followed the tragedy. But he approached the subject with compassion and sympathy. It is human nature to try to explain things to ourselves, to “try and impose some order on the chaos,” to say this happened because of that. And so we debate, and consider causes and motivations. Much of this is good, but not all. “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” we are too eager to lay to blame “at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do.” It is important that we talk to each other “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Scripture tells us “that there is evil in the world.” We don’t know what triggered the attack, but “what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

Lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, but “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 [the victims] proud.”

In saying this, the president took the air out of all the accusations and counteraccusations. By the end of the speech they were yesterday’s story.

We have to be better, said the president. The way to honor the dead and those who tried to help them is to live up to their example, and make our country worthy of them. Of 9-year-old Christina Green, who was drawn to public service: “I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.”

This was just what was needed. After a terrible tragedy, a political leader came forward with words that ennobled and consoled. Those rattled and damaged by the tragedy deserved it, and—sorry to be corny, but this is true—our children are watching and need to hear words that are a plus, not a minus.

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Mr. Obama in some new way found the tone of the presidency in this speech, the sound of it. In a purely political sense he was talking to the center—to the great beating heart of the middle of the country—while going to the center himself. And so it may mark a turning point in his fortunes, because it prompts and allows people to see him in a new way, a fresher way.

One speech can’t change everything, and shouldn’t. But one speech can begin something new, or boost a certain momentum. After the strategic bow to the Republicans on taxes, and the appointment of a more moderate and business-friendly chief of staff, the Tucson speech marks the third time since the election that the president has in effect reached toward the center. The question in the coming year will be whether he can gain some purchase on that ground, whether he can begin to hold it, as he did in 2008.

Mr. Obama is attempting to come back as a real force, and as a potentially effective thwarter of Republican intentions, especially on health care. You can see the sweet reason and rope-a-dope coming: If there’s a specific part of the program you have problems with please tell me, let’s work together to make it better.

Republicans will have to meet him with dignity and good faith, and go toe to toe on one thing, the facts. For the facts on this are on their side.

But they should know their adversary. Something is going on with him. He’s showing the signs of someone who has learned from two solid years of embarrassment and unpopularity. Maybe he has “not come back from hell with empty hands.” Maybe he is going to be formidable.