West Wing Briefing

After shootings, Obama must find not only right words but right time to say them

Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head Saturday morning while hosting an event outside a grocery store. Six people died, and 14 were injured.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 5:37 AM

In the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, President Obama canceled his travel plans and called for a national moment of silence, which he and first lady Michelle Obama will observe on the South Lawn at 11 a.m. Monday.

But silence is the easy part. In the hours and days that follow, will Obama speak out?

And after an event so inexplicable - and at the same time so politically polarizing, with liberals and conservatives assuming their assigned battle stations over whether guns and partisan rhetoric are to blame - what larger message could the president send?

As John Dickerson of Slate notes, it would be difficult for some Americans to see Obama as anything other than a Democrat - a partisan, in other words - if he delivered a speech on the importance of civility, although there may be powerful reasons for him to try. He was, after all, the candidate who tapped into a collective hunger to end partisan rancor, and who confronted the seemingly thornier issue of race.

The question is whether this is the moment that calls for such a speech. It is unclear whether ideology motivated the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner. And Obama's advisers may well view as unwise the idea of using the tragedy to prompt a national conversation on mutual respect.

As of last week, Obama seemed to just be turning a corner politically. His party's midterm losses were two months old, his lame-duck congressional session had yielded solid results and he was beginning 2011 with a new economic push. His staff retooling was moving swiftly. Republicans, after getting off to a less-than-overwhelming start, were planning to jump in with a vote this week on repeal of the new health-care law - a fight the White House was ready to have.

Much of that activity has been put on hold because of Saturday's shootings, which left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in critical condition and killed give others, including a federal judge. House Republicans have delayed the health-care vote, and Democratic groups have postponed protest events.

Obama has ordered that American flags be flown at half-mast, and will not travel to Schenectady, N.Y., on Tuesday for an economic event. The only things on his calendar are a series of meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who will visit the White House on Monday, and the funeral of ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke on Friday.

But it is hard to imagine the White House hunkering down and doing nothing else in the wake of the Tucson rampage. In the first hours after the shootings, before many details were known, Obama spoke to the nation from the State Dining Room to herald Giffords' strength and to deplore the violence.

Officials said Obama might travel to Arizona in the days ahead, depending on how events unfold. Once House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) are back in Washington, they might discuss ways to show bipartisan support for Giffords and outrage about the bloodshed.

The president also might decide to add the shootings to the themes woven into the State of the Union address he is scheduled to give on Jan. 25. Advisers are weighing that, and the options of a separate speech.

In the meantime, Obama will settle in this week with part of his newly formed West Wing team, as Chief of Staff William Daley and senior adviser David Plouffe take on their new roles this week.

Daley happened to be in the White House on Saturday when news of the shootings broke, and he was whisked into his first Situation Room meeting with the president before his official duties had even begun. Officials said they were grateful he was there, adding to the sense of order.

His next task will be helping the president try to strike the right tone.

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