The Note: Beyond Tucson: Obama’s Bid to Unite

Jan 13, 2011 8:31am


If there is one clear takeaway from President Obama’s address at last night’s memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shooting it is that this is a president who shines when the stakes are the highest.

Did his rhetoric live up to that of Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion in 1986 or Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 or George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001? Did President Obama get us beyond the debates about political rhetoric, and finger pointing and even “blood libel”?

By many measures he did. The president spent more time eulogizing the victims and honoring the heroes then getting mired in the controversy surrounding heated political rhetoric. And, it’s clear that even while many in the blogosphere want to spend their time there, most voters don’t.

According to the results of a Gallup poll out yesterday, most Americans — 42 percent — believe that the heated language of politics played no role in last Saturday’s violence. But the same survey showed that more than half of Democrats (51 percent) and Republicans (53 percent) and nearly as many Tea Party movement supporters (49 percent) say that “all major U.S. political groups are going too far in using inflammatory language to criticize their opponents.”

When President Obama did address the debate over language last night, he did it in a way that challenged everyone without blaming anyone. He challenged people to talk “to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds” and not to “use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

“As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility,” the president 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 that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

Most of all, however, this was a president and a first lady that looked so very human. Watching him struggle to compose himself when talking about 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green had to strike a chord with so many parents who, like the president in that moment, feel so frail and helpless when it comes to protecting their children.

“Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future,” Obama said. “She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”

“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. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations”

BOTTOM LINE: This is a president who is most comfortable — and confident — when he is talking about rising above politics as usual. In 2008, he ran on “hope” and “change” and last night’s speech embodied both of those themes. And he is getting praise from all sides for his remarks this morning. “Obama did exactly what a leader should do,” New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie said on “Good Morning America” today.

Watch Christie here:


The moment in Tucson also provided a stark contrast to the defensive words that Sarah Palin used in a video just hours earlier. Friends say Sarah Palin was galled as suggestions of her role in the Arizona shooting swirled over the last week, ABC News’ Claire Shipman and Huma Khan report.

“Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn,” she said in a Facebook post yesterday. Her words landed her in hot water once again: The term “blood libel” has been used historically to falsely accuse Jews of using Christian children’s blood to prepare their Passover matzoh. It’s a term that Jews say has been used to incite anti-Semitism and justify violence against them for centuries. Palin’s use of the word has triggered some deep emotions, even among those who believe Palin has been a target of unfair criticism since the Tucson shooting.

GIFFORDS OPENS HER EYES. When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ, opened her eyes in the hospital room tonight for the first time since Saturday’s shooting, a trio of Congressional Democrats were in the room with her, ABC News’ Jake Tapper notes. The three lawmakers were House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Here’s Gillibrand’s recounting of the moment aboard Air Force One last night: We just were so excited, so we were telling her how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength. And then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do after she got better. And we were holding her hand and she was responding to our hand-holding.  … And the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes literally. 

“And Mark sees this and gets extremely excited.  And we didn’t — I didn’t know what that meant.  And so he said, Gabby, ‘open your eyes, open your eyes.’  And he’s really urging her forward.  And the doctor is like perking up and everyone is coming around the bed.  And she’s struggling and she’s struggling and it’s a good.

“And then she finally opens her eyes and you could she was like desperately trying to focus and it took enormous strength from her. And Mark could just — can’t believe it.  I mean, he’s so happy.  And we’re crying because we’re witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us.”

More remarks and memories of Giffords’ from Gillibrand and Wasserman-Schultz:


ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE”: ABC’s Rick Klein and Amy Walter interview Herman Cain, a possible 2012 presidential candidate and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. Cain, who is popular among Tea Party activists, announced yesterday that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee. He told a local Atlanta radio station yesterday that he is considering a run for the nation’s highest office to “make this a better world” for his grandchildren. Also on the program today: Sue Davis from The National Journal. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. 

THE LATEST FROM ARIZONA. “Jared Loughner, suspected of the mass shooting near Tucson, said that he was in a war with Pima Community College and that students there were being tortured,” The Arizona Republic’s  Sean Holstege and Robert Anglen report. ‘This is my genocide school,’ Loughner said in a September YouTube video after he received only partial credit on a late assignment. ‘And I haven’t forgotten the teacher that gave me a B for freedom of speech.’ … Newly released records from Pima Community College and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in response to legal requests from The Arizona Republic paint a picture of a student who believed he was being persecuted and took any criticism as a threat to his civil rights.”

FULL COVERAGE of the aftermath of last weekend’s shooting on ABC News: 


CLINTON ON LOUGHNER. “In a sit-down interview with CNN’s Jill Dougherty, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked to explain comments she made on an overseas trip about extremists and Jared Loughner, the man accused of shooting of Rep. Giffords and 18 others in Tucson over the weekend,” ABC News’ Luis Martinez reports. “Clinton explained on CNN that pursuing criminal activity connected to political views, no matter how ‘bizarre and poorly thought through’ they might be ‘that’s a form of extremism.’”

OBAMA APPROVAL RATING BOUNCING BACK. “Halfway through his first term, President Barack Obama has a 48 – 44 percent approval rating, rebounding almost to the magic 50 percent threshold for the first time since October of 2009.  American voters split 47 – 45 percent on whether his presidency is a success or a failure,” according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today. “In an open-ended question, allowing for any answer, 26 percent of American voters [said] that health care is the best thing President Obama has done.  In a separate open-ended question, 27 percent of voters list health care as the worst thing he has done. … American voters say 46 – 30 percent that Obama has been a better president than George W. Bush, a larger margin than in November when they said so 43 – 37 percent. Voters also say 41 – 32 percent that the country would be worse off if McCain had won the 2008 election.”

SWITCHING SEATS. In the wake of the Arizona shooting, Sen. Mark Udall, D-CO is urging members of Congress to sit together at President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address, rather than divide by party as tradition dictates. Udall said in a statement on Wednesday: “What Americans see when they watch it on TV is a Congress that is bitterly divided by party … It sets a negative tone that only perpetuates the narrative that Congress cannot – and will not – come together for the good of the country we all love. Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country.”

CHRIS CHRISTIE’S ADVICE FOR PALIN. “Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey says it’s way too early to handicap the field of his fellow Republicans who might run for president in 2012, but on Wednesday he voiced a few sharp words about the most famous one,” The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena reports. “He argued that unscripted, even adversarial exchanges with reporters and the public are essential to judging a candidate, and that if Sarah Palin continues to avoid them, ‘she’ll never be president.’ … ‘I think people need to be judged by the way they conduct themselves in the public arena, in a way that is as minimally staged as possible,’ he said. ‘That’s where you really get to know people.’”

O’CONNOR ON UNITY. From ABC News’ Ariane DeVogue: Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor released a statement encouraging more civility in the community. Last night O’Connor sat in the front row at the University of Arizona memorial service, next to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ intern, Daniel Hernandez. “We must reject violence and hostility and bring civility and rationale dialogue into our government and our community life. This is a responsibility of every one of us as individuals. Only we – working together – can restore reason and civility in our public speech and actions,” O’Connor wrote. “Before speaking out ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions.”



@jeffzeleny: The lessons in Tucson speech were largely written by the president himself, aides said. Our front-page NYT story today

@HotlineJeremy: Congressional insiders sharply divided on tone of political rhetoric

@amyewalter: On @GMA Christie tells @GStephanopoulos education is transformational issue that can bring us all together

@MPOTheHill: Sen. Paul: Dems trying to ‘manufacture’ controversy over rhetoric

@rollcall: The @HeardontheHill team gets scoop – Christiane Amanpour to emcee WPCF dinner:


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