Tucson Provides Obama An 'Oklahoma City Moment'

Members of Congress are reeling from the shooting of one of their own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Ariz. President Obama spoke at a memorial service for the victims. Even before the service, his speech was referred to as his "Oklahoma City moment." That hearkins back to President Clinton who spoke after the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now to discuss some of the other political news in a very busy week is NPR's Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Mara, let's start with an event that nobody wanted to see politicized, and that's the shooting in Tucson.

For President Obama, his speech at the memorial service there is being called now, a day or so later - by many people, his Oklahoma City moment, that would harken back to former President Bill Clinton's speech following the bombing of a federal building there.

President Obama wanted to give a healing speech. Did he succeed?

LIASSON: Well, I think he did. You know, it's interesting. It was being called an Oklahoma City moment even before he went to give the speech. But the president wanted to give a speech to bring the country together, to honor the victims, and to rise above the partisan political discourse that some people had blamed for the shootings, and continued in earnest after the shootings. There was a lot of blame being pointed in the aftermath of the shootings.

And I think that for a president who has sometimes struggled to do what he always wanted to do, which is transcend the partisan divide and to unify Americans who have different points of view, with that speech he really did unify Americans because it was received so well by all points of the political spectrum.

I mean, conservatives who are ardent opponents of the president said he did strike the right tone, he did pull it off. And I think for Mr. Obama it was a chance to get back to what the White House sometimes refers to as first principles, to that image that he projected back in 2008 when he ran for president as someone who could bridge the partisan divides, and even in 2004 when he gave his maiden speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston and talked about how we're not a bunch of red states or blue states, we're the United States.

MONTAGNE: And one of the most significant figures in the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, also weighed in this week on the Tucson shootings. She was rather forced to, in a way.

LIASSON: Well, I don't know if she was forced to. You know, I think she made a choice to make that kind of video, a very presidential-style video sitting with the American flag behind her, and you know she had been accused by some commentators on the left that her rhetoric had somehow contributed to the shooting. Now the president indirectly dismissed that accusation yesterday in his speech, and the polls say that the majority of Americans don't believe that political discourse in general led to the shootings.

But still, there are many Republicans even, who thought that Sarah Palin sounded defensive in that video like she was the victim. And there's the video itself, as most of what Sarah Palin does, caused a lot of controversy. Some people thought it was aimed too much at her ardent base and not at the center.

MONTAGNE: Well, a lot has been made about how the shootings might though tone down the shrill political discourse that we've been hearing. What do you think? Do you think it will last?

LIASSON: Well, you know, that remains to be seen. I do think that at least for the moment, people on both sides will think before they speak in harsh, you know, militaristic terms, calling their opponents the enemy of ordinary Americans, calling for their opponents to be, quote, "taken out." I mean those are all things we heard during the last campaign.

And the fact that people on both sides of the aisle in Washington, from Speaker Boehner to President Obama, are talking about toning it down, not pretending like there're not serious fundamental differences on policy, but going about arguing about them in a different way. I think at least for the short time it will have an effect.

Now, the Congress did suspend regular business this week, but next week the health care debate will resume, there will be a vote on repealing the president's health care bill in the House of Representatives, and that I think will be the first test. How do people discuss this extremely polarizing and controversial piece law actually, not just piece of legislation when they do debate this next week?

MONTAGNE: And Mara, what about President Obama's presidency, I mean, could his handling of this tragedy have a significant and lasting impact on his presidency?

LIASSON: Well, it already has. Polls show that for the first time since July, his average approval rating is above water. That means more people approve of his performance in office than disprove.

Like all ambitious presidents, President Obama had become a polarizing figure, but he's had some opportunities to turn that around since the elections, starting with the bipartisan compromises in the lame duck, and now his - what many people consider to be pitch-perfect response to the Tucson shootings. The question is how is he going to build on that. He has a chance very soon to build on the themes in that memorial address because in very short order, just 11 days from now, he will give the State of the Union address, which is the highest profile event any president gives in the course of a year.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much

LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mara Liasson. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.