West Wing Briefing

Will Obama call for political civility in Tucson speech?

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
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 8:37 AM

President Obama, who has for years bemoaned incivility in politics, must decide Wednesday whether his speech in Tucson is the right time to repeat that message.

The White House announced last night that the president will appear at the University of Arizona at an event the school has dubbed "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America." He is likely to make his longest formal remarks since the shooting in Tucson that killed six and injured 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

So far, President Obama has not joined the Democrats who have argued the shooting was a manifestation of a tense political climate that is largely the fault of Republicans. Obama's comments have been brief and completely non-controversial, such as on Monday, when he praised the people who wrestled the shooter down to the ground.

Republicans have criticized the focus of liberals and the news media on partisan rancor, arguing that it is wrong to implicitly link the tea party and conservatives to the alleged shooter even as little evidence has emerged he had any particular political motive. Some in the GOP have even praised Obama for his measured tone.

Will that change on Wednesday? White House aides have not yet said whether the president will simply honor the victims and their families or speak more broadly about the tragedy.

If they want to use the speech to urge greater civility in politics, White House aides won't have to look very hard for language. Obama's speeches in his 2008 presidential campaign were as much about changing the tone in Washington as shifting its policies to the left.

In his State of the Union address last year , Obama said, "some of the unity we felt after 9/11 has dissipated."

"We can argue all we want about who's to blame for this, but I am not interested in re-litigating the past," Obama continued. "I know that all of us love this country. All of us are committed to its defense. So let's put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough. ... Let's leave behind the fear and division, and do what it takes to defend our nation and forge a more hopeful future - for America and the world."

But if Obama uses such language on Wednesday, it might not unify the country. The comments of Democrats, such as Obama ally Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who on Sunday invoked several comments by Sarah Palin in discussing the shooting, have made many Republicans wary of the Democrats' motives in speaking of increased civility.

"The aim is not truth; it is to advance The Cause," ex-Bush speechwriter Pete Wehner wrote on commentarymagazine.com Monday. "It is also about cynical exploitation. As one veteran Democratic operative told Politico, the Obama White House needs to 'deftly pin this on the tea partiers' just as 'the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people' in 1995."

Many Democrats, meanwhile, don't view the sharp partisan rhetoric as a bipartisan problem, and might not welcome a speech from Obama suggesting that it is. They argue that Palin, Glenn Beck and others on the right have created what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has dubbed "a climate of hate," with the left bearing little blame.

But other Democrats say that Obama can craft a speech that carefully links the tragedy and broader problems in the country without turning it into a partisan moment.

"He has a bigger opportunity than politics. We've been so focused on politics we've almost forgotten that the president is the leader of our country first and foremost," said one Democrat who speaks regularly with administration officials and did not wanted to be quoted publicly.

"This is a national tragedy. This is a time for the president to speak to the bigger picture about who we are as Americans, the democracy we cherish and the heroism we saw on Saturday."

Obama today

The president will be at the White House and has no planned public events. After the Tucson rampage, his aides canceled an economic event near Albany, N.Y., that had been scheduled for Tuesday.

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