Last night, for his first time in office, Barack Obama sounded like the president of all Americans.
Obama famously burst onto the national scene in 2004 with an address to the Democratic Convention in which he declared, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” During his own run for the presidency four years later, he would echo this post-partisan theme.
But the first two years of Obama’s presidency have been contentions ones. While he may not have introduced polarization to American politics, he certainly didn’t help matters. Just days after being sworn in, he admonished Congressional Republicans with whom he was negotiating an economic package, boasting: “I won.”
When he encountered political resistance as he set about remaking America, he either directly or through surrogates portrayed political opposition as not just wrong, but illegitimate. Americans expressing their views in town hall meetings became “angry mobs” and “Astroturf.”
As political defeat loomed in last fall’s midterm elections, Obama urged Hispanic Americans to vote for Democrats as a way to “punish our enemies.” Just last month, in announcing a tax deal he had struck with GOP leaders, he blasted Republicans as “hostage takers” and said he was “itching for a fight” with them.
On Saturday, the nation was shaken when news broke of an assassination attempt against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords which killed six and injured a dozen others. Unfortunately, our noxious political atmosphere was on full display as liberals immediately seized on the tragedy and attempted to blame Sarah Palin, tea parties, and the right-wing media for the attack even before anything was known about the assailant.
Subsequent evidence has produced no known links with the alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, who appears to be a mentally disturbed individual without any discernible political ideology or partisan leanings.
“They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers,” one Democrat had anonymously advised the White House via the Politico. “Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”
In what was billed as a defining moment in his presidency, Obama took the stage at the University of Arizona last night with a clear choice. Was he going to use this occasion to score political points, or was he going to finally live up to the promise of his candidacy and attempt to bring the country together?
Fortunately for the victims of this tragedy, and for America, he chose the latter route.
While the campaign rally feel of the event (complete with cheering and whistling from college students in the audience) seemed jarring at first for a memorial service, Obama struck just the right tone in his remarks. He paid moving tribute to the victims and emphatically stated several times that harsh political rhetoric was not the cause of this attack.
“(A)t a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do — it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” Obama said. “Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”
He continued, “For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”
Obama went on to say that those who lost their lives should inspire Americans to be better. “And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse,” he said, “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.”
The phrase “it did not” was not in Obama’s prepared remarks, and it’s to his credit that he felt the need to inject those words to make it abundantly clear that political rhetoric was not a factor in the shooting.
Instead of using the bully pulpit to “deftly” pin the blame for the attack on his political opponents, Obama used it to deftly tell liberals: “Enough! The partisan blame game is unjustified by the facts and does a disservice to the victims.”
Ultimately, he did what a president should do at a moment like this — rise above the politics of the moment and lead the nation as a whole.
It may no longer be politically correct to say such a thing, but last night Obama fired, and he hit the bullseye.
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