Obama in Tucson

Watching President Obama’s speech at the University of Arizona Wednesday night, I couldn’t help wondering how it will be remembered a year, or a decade, from now. I sensed in it a defining moment of his presidency. I am not for a minute forgetting the plight of Congresswoman Giffords or the other victims of the Tucson tragedy. Surely they deserve our thoughts and our care. But, like it or not, this was a national event, not a local one, and it will have national repercussions beyond the death and destruction in a shopping mall.

The speech set almost exactly the right tone. There were a few maudlin moments, but it was mostly sober and uplifting. Obama shone; his compassion and moral clarity made the speech a touchstone of leadership in crisis.

Unfortunately, the raucous and lively atmosphere in the arena, which was filled largely with students, detracted from the solemnity of the speech and the occasion. Tucsonians are understandably burdened right now. But if the display didn’t reflect America at its best, the speech will outlast the cheers and applause.

Most Americans share the President’s wish that the country might be more unified, insofar as that’s possible, and that we might conduct our politics with more dignity and mutual respect. But there’s little chance of that happening just because a few people got shot. It’s all happened before.  Some 33 people were shot at Virginia Tech in 2007; gun laws didn’t change.  Great shifts in democratic cultures are seldom sudden, and only take place with catalyzing events such as wars or mass protest, or gradually as people die out.

It took a war of existential proportions to briefly unite us. My parents could remember what it was like during World War II (and there were plenty of America-Firsters and Roosevelt-haters). Now we are again deeply divided, and not on small or petty matters either. That is the unavoidable truth that pertains to Tucson. It’s all we can talk about in the wake of this event. At least two-thirds of us are implacably opposed, with incompatible visions of America (including, for example, the proper roles of guns in the nation), while the middle wobbles. We share only a limited -- but still very important -- range of agreement about democracy itself, and argue about the range of democracy too.

Democracy itself is what Obama was talking about in Tucson, and the need for civility. Like a lot of other important democratic values – good education and good journalism, for example – it’s something that cannot be legislated from Washington or  state capitals. It’s either part of the culture or it isn’t.

I’m not given to wishful thinking, but I suspect that Mr. Obama enhanced his job security on Wednesday night. His words will not precipitate a political shift to the left; but looking back, I believe it will become evident that he gained stature in the eyes of many Americans who agree with only some of his goals for the country.

He did it by doing what he has always tried to do (but not always with success, and not always with good reason), and that is to transcend partisan politics. He found common ground on a moral and perhaps even a spiritual plain for divided country; and that’s hard to do on taxes or immigration or healthcare.  Abetted by tragic events, he has made the style of our politics a resounding issue at last.

It may not translate into a commanding political coalition; but my guess is he deepened his shaky hold on the American middle with his almost perfectly-chosen words of compassion and grace.

The climate of invective won’t disappear; the fever-swamp of talk radio will persist. Cross-hairs (or their immoral equivalent) will remain on the scene. But Obama left Tucson a stronger president.

It didn’t hurt that his most visible adversary stuck her finger in the tar of outrageous polemic and now she can’t get it off; that icky, sticky phrase “blood libel” will haunt her and further marginalize her. It’s not fair to blame Sarah Palin or anyone else in the political world for what happened at the shopping mall in Tucson. But it is fair to blame her and her ilk for degrading our politics.  Fairly or not, the violent talk of the far right has been equated in the public’s mind with real violence.

A great speech, of course, does not make a great leader; political skills are required as well, and Obama has had mixed (though more often positive) results in that arena so far. A great leader knows when to unify – and when to divide. Lincoln respected his adversaries but didn’t appease them; likewise FDR. Ronald Reagan didn’t fear the Democratic Congressional majority.

Obama still must show what he stands for no matter what, and where compromise ends. But after so elegantly personifying the country’s grief and concern at the present state of affairs, he is now a proven leader. He has gained in stature and moral capital, if not in political capital, from this tragedy.

Like Daniel Hernandez, the young hero who rushed to Gabby Giffords’s aid when she was shot, Obama didn’t choose this moment in which to shine, would not have chosen it,  and would not want to seem to profit from it. But leaders can’t always be choosers.

Originally posted on http://whenfallsthecoliseum.com/2011/01/14/obama-in-tucson/