West Wing Briefing

Obama uses careful tone to urge 'a more civil' tone in politics

Speaking at the memorial service for those killed in the Tucson shooting, President Obama said, "those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 6:39 AM

President Obama carefully interjected himself Wednesday night into the debate over political civility in the wake of the Arizona shootings. He urged "a more civil and honest public discourse" but avoided any suggestion that the heightened political tensions of the past several years may have influenced the gunman.

While some Democrats have suggested partisan rhetoric from conservatives has created a highly charged political environment that may have led to Saturday's shooting, the president declined to endorse that view.

"Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath," he said in Tucson at a memorial service for the victims. "For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind."

At the same time, reducing partisanship and rancor has long been a major priority of Obama, and he argued that a more civil tone in politics should be a result of the shooting, even if it wasn't a cause.

"And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud," he said. "It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country."

In the immediate aftermath of his speech, conservatives, who have been wary of the focus on civility by Democrats, seemed satisfied that the president's speech did not attack them.

But will Obama's words have any impact? The president has spoken repeatedly of increased civility in politics over the last two years to little effect.

The next major speech

After delivering effectively a national address in Tucson, Obama will shift his attention to another major speech in less than two weeks: the State of the Union.

The White House views the speech, which Obama will deliver to Congress on Jan. 25, as a starting point to its agenda for the second stage of his presidency, in which the president will have to craft agreements on major issues with congressional Republicans.

Along with a focus on the economy, the speech is expected to include a push for education reform, an issue on which the administration sees potential for working with Republicans to make changes to the No Child Left Behind education law.

The Obama administration wants to focus more attention and money on the lowest-performing schools in each state and create programs that reward teachers whose students do better on standardized tests. Republicans have supported such ideas in the past, but it's not clear if they will in 2011.

Obama's aides have not yet said if he will use the State of the Union as another opportunity to urge an improved civic discourse. But it wouldn't be surprising if he did: Obama expressed concerns about Washington's political rhetoric in last year's State of the Union.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company