Assessing Obama's Tucson Speech

Speeches like the one President Obama gave in Tucson on Wednesday can be turning points for a president. And while it's too early to tell if that will be the case for Obama, the early assessments are already rolling in.

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Speeches like the one President Obama gave last night at the memorial service in Tucson can be turning points for a president. While it's too early to tell if that's the case for Mr. Obama, the early assessments are already rolling in.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: For a man elected on a promise to elevate the tone of political discourse, the memorial service for the Tucson shooting victims presented an opportunity and President Obama took it.

President BARACK OBAMA: And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember, 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 the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

LIASSON: The president has struggled to transcend the partisan divide and to unify Americans with different points of view. But last night he succeeded on one important level - there was wide agreement that he gave a very good speech.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Director, Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics): I think fair-minded observers of both parties would give the president very high marks for his speech.

LIASSON: That's former Republican operative Dan Schnur, now the director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

One challenge for the president last night was adjusting to the mostly college-age crowd who seemed more in the mood for a pep rally style celebration of life than a traditional memorial service. They repeatedly interrupted the somber speech the president had written.

Pres. OBAMA: We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

LIASSON: Michael Waldman is a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

Mr. MICHAEL WALDMAN (Former Speechwriter, President Bill Clinton): He was in this unusual setting with a boisterous crowd and he found a way to make it work. It came off as challenging and even a bit jarring to have the audience applauding. But it didn't seem inappropriate. It was a very American, rambunctious setting. And it wasn't a partisan rally. It was - I got the sense a community feeling very besieged wanting to let off some steam.

LIASSON: The speech had echoes of Mr. Obama's maiden speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, when he dismissed the idea of the country as a collection of red states and blue states.

Pres. OBAMA: We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

LIASSON: This is what the president's advisers have been trying to accomplish -getting Mr. Obama back to what they call first principles.

Michael Waldman.

Mr. WALDMAN: The message he gave last night, in a way it was a reintroduction of himself to the public of what people liked about him, what inspired them so much. So, that will be a renewed source of strength for him.

LIASSON: It already has been. An average of polls shows that for the first time since July, the president's approval rating is above water. That is, more people approve of him now than disapprove. This is a trend that started a while ago, but the rampage in Tucson is the kind of event that can be a turning point, says Dan Schnur.

Mr. SCHNUR: Every president starts his term with a very large window of opportunity to talk to the voters. And over the course of his term in office, that window gradually shrinks. What these type of events do is they expand that window of opportunity outward again. And it gives the president a broader opportunity to talk with those voters. What comes next I think will ultimately determine how the speech is viewed in years ahead.

LIASSON: And fortuitously for President Obama, he will get another chance very soon to build on the themes in the Tucson speech. The State of the Union address, the highest profile event in a president's year is right around the corner, just 12 days from today.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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