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01.13.11

Obama's Next Impossible Speech

Fresh off a memorial speech praised by right and left alike, Obama pivots to the State of the Union and a return to partisan politics. Will the raves help him on Capitol Hill?

Amid the glowing reviews for Barack Obama’s memorial speech in Tucson—with even conservatives dishing out praise—some prognosticators see a political resurrection for the embattled president.

That’s not how the White House views it.

By delivering a moving address that was mainly about the victims of last weekend’s shooting, Obama was not looking to drive an agenda. Longtime aides are well aware that other major speeches by the president haven’t moved the polls in any significant way. In this view, a majority of Americans already views Obama as someone who is adept at bringing people together; that trait is priced into the stock, so to speak.

In the sharp-edged world of Beltway scorekeeping, the Obama oration probably won’t lead to legislative progress, or even a better working relationship with Republicans trying to repeal his health-care law. But if the speech reminded people of what they liked about the one-time hopemonger in the first place, it certainly can’t hurt.

“It was his most important speech so far, one that history is going to reflect on,” says historian and author Douglas Brinkley. “There was a bit of Dr. King to him. That’s simply been missing in his presidency so far. I was sitting there and I realized, ‘This guy might be a great man.’ I had forgotten about that.”

A president plays two roles in our democracy, partisan leader and head of state, and Obama’s mission Wednesday night was all—well, almost all, since politics can never be entirely separated from presidential performance—about the latter.

“At times of tragedy,” says Tony Fratto, a Bush White House spokesman, a president has to “put it in context, help people understand it better, find some deeper meaning to it. The president has a role to play that is above the political process.”

But the political process remains, which is why Obama plans to return to the theme two weeks from now in the State of the Union. While that speech is still a work in progress, the president will again address the broader question of civility, which Obama rhetorically tied to the victims of the Arizona rampage in challenging a polarized country to do better.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs said his boss will emphasize “the tone and the approach on both sides—and this isn’t just a one-way street, it’s for us, too—to ensure that we’re doing this in a way, as I think the president so eloquently said last night, is befitting the memory of those in Tucson.”

“There was a bit of Dr. King to him,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “That’s simply been missing in his presidency so far.”

Obama’s Arizona Speech: Video and Text

Reactions to Obama’s Speech
Reporters repeatedly tried to get Gibbs to comment on Sarah Palin’s video address, whose tone was far more combative than the president’s, but the press secretary deflected every question. Whatever he said would have generated Obama-vs.-Palin headlines at precisely the time the White House wants to keep the focus on the president’s healing moment. And aides declined to discuss the political implications on the record to avoid even the appearance of gaming the situation.

Chief speechwriter Jon Favreau oversaw the first draft, which Obama began laboring over by hand after getting it in the Oval Office on Tuesday. On the Air Force One flight to Arizona, the president—the author of two memoirs—continued to work on a yellow legal pad, keeping in mind, aides say, his perspective as a father.

When Obama was en route to the memorial service, after having visited Gabrielle Giffords in the hospital, he got word that the congresswoman had opened one eye (the other was bandaged). He called her husband, got permission to disclose the information and added it to his speech, ad libbing for emphasis as the crowd roared.

The circumstances are being likened to Bill Clinton’s 1995 speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, which helped revive his presidency after the Republicans had captured Congress. But the scale of destruction was far greater and Clinton’s remarks had a sharper partisan edge, assailing the “purveyors of hatred” on the airwaves at a time when talk-radio hosts were whipping up anti-government sentiment.

George W. Bush had a breakthrough moment when he grabbed the bullhorn amid the rubble of ground zero after the unimaginable destruction of Sept. 11. That was an overtly political act in the name of terrorism that required a military and diplomatic response.

“It’s harder to do in this case because we’re talking about the act of one crazy person,” Fratto says. “This event doesn’t offer the same follow-on activities. There’s no country to invade. There’s no economic impact. There is just the socio-cultural impact.”

But that impact alone has considerable resonance at a time when so many people are frustrated by the ugly attacks and endless bickering in Washington, broken only by a burst of cooperation during the lame-duck session. Obama deliberately floated above the fray, saying our national response should be “worthy of those we have lost” and “not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.”

He could have issued a call to action—for specified gun-control measures, for instance—but the focus was on the dead and wounded, particularly 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. By draining politics from the speech—to the extent it’s really possible for a president to do that—Obama drew a stark contrast with Palin and helped himself in a more amorphous way than in pushing through a piece of legislation.

White House officials are right that they may reap no tangible benefit once the moment fades. But intangibles also count when a president, particularly one long viewed as aloof, has to do double duty as the mourner-in-chief.

—Daniel Stone contributed to this report.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.