article

01.11.11

Can Obama Do Empathy?

The president, often faulted as too aloof, delivers eulogies for those felled by the Arizona shooter today. Samuel P. Jacobs talks to presidential speechwriters about the political minefield ahead.

The president, often faulted as too aloof, delivers eulogies for those felled by the Arizona shooter today. Samuel P. Jacobs talks to presidential speechwriters about the political minefield ahead. Plus, full coverage of the Arizona shooting.

President Obama flies to Tucson, Arizona, Wednesday, landing in a scene of grief, confusion, and political strife. He’ll appear at a service for the six people killed and 14 injured in the shooting rampage that gravely wounded Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last weekend. Amid all the noise on the left and right, Obama has been noticeably tight-lipped. On Monday, he marked the tragedy with silence. Today, he’ll do it with a speech—one that offers the opportunity to comfort the country, and potentially change perceptions of his presidency.

It’s a tall order. President Clinton pulled it off in addressing the country following the Oklahoma City bombings. But then Clinton, with a tilt of his head and a bite of his lip, majored in empathy during times of crisis. George W. Bush rallied the country after the Sept. 11 attacks, projecting strength and a determination to hunt down the perpetrators and deliver swift justice. Obama is a different breed of cat. He stirred the masses selling a message of hope and postpartisan politics during the 2008 campaign. But he’s been faulted as president for his professorial demeanor, cool detachment, and inability to connect.

But Wednesday’s speech could well prove that his perceived weakness is his greatest strength. In a state plagued by ethnic tensions and a culture of death threats, at a time of hyperpartisan finger-pointing over whose words caused Jared Lee Loughner to pull the trigger, calm might be just the quality the country is looking for.

“One of the things that Obama has shown repeatedly over the years, and this was a great strength, is his calmness,” says Jeff Shesol, a presidential historian and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “That has not always been an asset for him in the presidency.”

The one certainty: Obama has not been tested in quite this fashion before. “He’s never really had a moment like this one,” says Shesol. (Obama was in a similar spot in Nov. 2009 when he spoke at a memorial service following the Fort Hood shooting.)

Obama’s first task is to become the Comforter in Chief, several former White House speechwriters say. He’ll address overlapping communities—first the families of victims, then the community of Tucson, and finally the country as a whole. The speech will recall past moments when the country turned to its president for support, most memorably Ronald Reagan’s 1986 address following the Challenger disaster and Clinton’s 1995 speech after the bombing in Oklahoma City.

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Those addresses made history. Many still remember Clinton talking about planting a tree in Oklahoma City, because “a tree takes a long time to grow, and wounds take long time to heal. But we begin.” From Reagan’s Oval Office speech, speechwriters still talk about his eloquent quotation of poet and World War II airman John Gillespie Magee, Jr. who described flight as “slip[ping] the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

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Lowering the temperature is key, as is climbing down from the altar of the presidency and relating to the audience as one of them. Obama has already started this process by focusing on his reaction to the deadly event as a father—in addition to president. Clinton took this tack, too, after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, when he spoke of his response as a husband and neighbor.

Obama’s second challenge comes with the painfully political nature of this moment. When seven astronauts died aboard the Challenger shuttle, there was little discussion of blame or moral culpability. There was no need for choosing sides. Fury over responsibility for Saturday’s killings—the mental-health system, the nature of political rhetoric, language in campaign ads—began almost as soon as the shooting stopped. Obama must try to avoid adding to the rancor.

“It’s really about the specific event and Rep. Giffords,” says Ted Widmer, who wrote speeches for Clinton. “Obviously no one wants to politicize such a painful tragedy.”

“Will Obama call for political civility?” The Washington Post asked Tuesday. If he does, conservatives will see it as a blame game, no matter how nuanced a message the White House strives to deliver. If he doesn’t, liberals will turn off their televisions disappointed, frustrated that Obama has—once again, in their view—kowtowed to the right.

For Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, a call for civility should be avoided because it will make for a bad speech.

“It’s so conventional and clichéd,” Khachigian says. (Indeed, Obama’s career took off with an urge for unity at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.)

What should Obama talk about? Obama is likely to focus on two types of heroism, the speechwriters say. He’ll describe the courage of those who acted to save more lives from being lost. He’ll also remind Americans of a more quiet heroism, the kind exhibited by elected officials like Giffords going about the people’s work. It will be a short speech, and commentators will turn quickly to discuss how Obama has bettered or harmed our politics and his own standing.

For the families in Tucson, that will all be very much beside the point. Shesol remembers accompanying Bill Clinton to Denver in the wake of the Columbine shootings.

“I remember how important it was to them to feel in the person of President Clinton that the nation recognized their loss,” Shesol says.

Politics aside, Obama will bear the same burden.

“What happens there will be very real and raw and immediate for him in a way that the rest of us might forget,” Shesol says.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.