President Obama Set to Address Nation at Tucson Memorial Service

BY David Chalian  January 12, 2011 at 8:29 AM EDT

Memorial in Tucson

People light candles at a makeshift memorial in front of University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz. where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords remains in a critical condition. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

President Obama is set to deliver remarks about Saturday’s shooting rampage in front of thousands at a memorial service Wednesday evening on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, with millions more Americans watching around country, all listening for words of compassion, strength and hope.

It’s a moment that calls for no ordinary speech, and if the president strikes the right tone, he has the opportunity not just to bring the country together, but move it forward by calling for a renewal of civil discourse.

The president hinted at such a theme Monday in remarks to reporters following a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “I think it’s going to be important…for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation,” President Obama said.

Glenn Thrush and Scott Wong of POLITICO preview the speech: “Obama, aides say, will deliver a speech that will focus on national healing and ‘pulling together as a country’ and might include a plea for the restoration of civility in political discourse.”

But just how does the president do that? The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza looked at some past presidential speeches — Reagan after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing and Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — given at a time when the nation was grieving. He offers three lessons:

Be Brief: There’s always danger in moments like these for presidents who can look as though they are turning the focus of the tragedy to themselves rather than the victims.

Be Idealistic: The best of these sorts of presidential speeches amount to a rallying cry for the American public, reminding people about what’s good about the country.

Be Biblical: At moments like these, even many people who have little use for religion in their daily lives may look to a higher power for answers.

It’s too early to gauge the true magnitude of the moment for the president, but the measure of his response is clear: Is he able to reassure a rattled public with words of calm and reflection and does he advance the debate about the coarsening of our country’s political rhetoric beyond the partisan back-and-forth that has marked the days since the shooting.

THE HOUSE MOURNS

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ colleagues will take to the House floor Wednesday to honor her and all the victims of Saturday’s shooting, and the entire day on Capitol Hill will be dominated by activities related to it. House members will receive a security briefing by U.S. Capitol Police and federal law enforcement agencies.

At 10 a.m. ET, the House convenes. Shortly thereafter, House Speaker John Boehner is expected to call up the resolution he introduced honoring Rep. Giffords and the other victims.

The speaker’s remarks will be followed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

Other members will begin to offer their remarks on the resolution and the tragic events in Tucson beginning at about 10:25 a.m.

The House will recess at 1 p.m. for a bipartisan prayer service and then return to complete the tributes on the House floor.

PALIN RESPONDS TO CRITICS

Sarah Palin took a different approach than she usually takes in responding to political controversy swirling around her. She took her time.

No political leader has mastered the social media sphere the way Palin has. Time and again she has used Facebook and Twitter for a lightening quick injection of her point of view into the political bloodstream.

While she quickly offered condolences to the victims of the Tucson shooting, she has remained largely silent since then despite being at the center of the political commentary about the tone of America’s political rhetoric and whether it deserves examination and adjustment.

In the pre-dawn hours Wednesday morning, the former vice presidential candidate and governor of Alaska posted a video statement to her Facebook page pushing back against critics who have pointed to her use of cross hairs to depict targeted congressional districts, including Rep. Giffords.

“Like many, I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on what happened. Praying for guidance. After the shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern, and now with sadness to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event,” Palin says in the video.

“Within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible. There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical, criminal,” she adds.

In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Dan Balz wrote of this politically perilous moment for Palin and included this observation:

“It’s absurd to point fingers at Palin, and people who are doing that are just as guilty of politicizing this tragedy as anyone else,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist. “At the same time, to the degree that this is a so-called learning moment for the country, I think the public looks to its leaders and pretty quickly decides who has something to teach and who has something to learn. I think that Palin is missing an opportunity to show that she can be a leader at a higher level than she’s been viewed before.”

One online video is unlikely to demonstrate a new level of leadership on Palin’s part, but her deliberate and careful response is a clear signal that she understood this moment was one that she had to engage in order to continue moving forward, building her credentials as a leader and to be taken seriously.

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