In the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, President Barack Obama must step into the role of national mourner -- a part he has not had to play before.
At the same time, he must prepare for a State of the Union address before a newly divided Congress, on Jan. 25. The confluence presents a true leadership challenge, requiring tonal deftness and offering him a chance to lift our sights.
The U.S. president, as often noted, is head of state as well as head of government. He is called on to speak for the country at moments of shared sorrow. Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and consecrated the lives of the dead to a struggle for democracy.
George W. Bush spoke at the National Cathedral and before the Congress after Sept. 11. “We have suffered great loss,” he declared. “And in our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment.”
Most relevant, Bill Clinton first became a unifying figure only in his response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He spoke with terse anger at the White House. Then he movingly bonded with mourners at a memorial service. Several weeks later, he drew explicit political lessons at the Michigan State commencement, when he decried the anti-government sentiment that spawned Timothy McVeigh’s hatred.
Each time, these presidents found a way to draw larger lessons -- to pivot from private grief to mobilizing sentiment around public goals. The challenge facing Obama is to do so in a way that rallies the heartland in revulsion against ugly anti-government language that has metastasized throughout American politics.
This requires subtlety: the alleged shooter is plainly unstable, perhaps driven by inner demons rather than an ideological bent. Obama himself has been the target of so much of the most noxious poison, making it trickier for him to rise above the fray. Just last week, a birther who alleged the president isn’t legally qualified to serve disrupted the reading of the Constitution on the House floor.
But it’s important he find a way to acknowledge the fact that the sheer volume of violent, insurrectionary imagery goes beyond a lack of civility. It is a petri dish in which extremism can flourish, and unstable individuals can act.
Obama brilliantly spoke to a maelstrom of similarly intense issues during his presidential campaign when he addressed race in Philadelphia. That speech was Obama at his best: speaking hard truths about raw subjects.
He may wish to give such a talk, even before the joint session address. The shootings do seem to have shaken members of Congress of both parties. This could be a moment when leadership serves as a brake on militant language.
That’s where the State of the Union comes in. The speech can’t be dominated by the reaction to the shootings -- the public wants to hear its business addressed, and the continuing crisis of long-term joblessness should be the policy heart of the speech.
But the State of the Union is a uniquely apt forum. Required by the Constitution, it remains a rare unifying civic ritual. Even in this fragmented media environment, people tune in. Last year Obama drew 48 million TV viewers, many more than watched his inauguration.
Previously, the State of the Union format hasn’t been a strong one for him. He shrinks from the dramatic flourishes sometimes required of a president in those settings. Now he has a chance to inject new urgency into the speech’s main political tasks.
When he reaches out rhetorically, calling for common purpose and bipartisanship, those words now will have an edge. He should give them heft by setting out a major goal requiring real cooperation between the parties -- say, tax reform to simplify the code, curbing loopholes while lowering rates. At the same time, he will draw sharp contrasts -- making it clear when he will fight.
Presumably House Republicans still plan to vote to repeal the health-care law before he speaks. Obama will pledge to veto it, of course, conveying strength to cheering Democrats. Moreover, he can spell out before his largest audience yet the benefits of the plan as passed and the consequences of repeal. He also can begin setting out his next round of policy initiatives, a process that will gather momentum in next year’s election speeches.
It won’t be enough to call for “jobs, jobs, jobs.” As Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University, puts it, he must “explain, explain, explain.” But most noteworthy, he can place these disparate parts in a larger narrative. Yes, any State of the Union belongs in the “checklist manifesto.” But he can do what FDR did in his 1940 speech setting out the Four Freedoms -- place policies in the context of great national values.
Red and Blue
Obama may be tempted to reprise the themes that first brought him to national prominence in 2004 at the Democratic Convention, when he decried the intense partisan divide between red and blue America. But he will be far more effective, with far greater import, if he defuses the venomous assault on government behind so much of the recent turmoil.
He has never set out a compelling vision for the role of government in any of his major televised talks. National politics lately has been a jarringly one-sided debate. He can make clear government is our instrument of common purpose. It’s not the enemy; it’s us.
The shootings have awakened a true horror among millions of Americans over the vitriol and violent imagery that has come to dominate so much discourse. This is Obama’s silent majority. Use the coming weeks to lead us in mourning, Mr. President. But more, lift our sights.
(Michael Waldman, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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