Jonathan Chait

Obama's Moving But Ultimately Unsatisfying Speech

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[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

Wednesday night’s speech in Tucson could turn out to be the trickiest assignment of Obama’s presidency. Consider what the situation called for: Memorializing victims, comforting a traumatized community, unifying a country left even more polarized by the tragedy, projecting optimism about the future. Perhaps most challenging of all, Obama had to draw some larger lesson from an event that, we’re discovering, had little intrinsic meaning. But he had to do this without straying too far into the realm of the political, which would have been distasteful so soon after the fact. It was, all in all, an assignment more befitting a pastor than a president. And there’s a reason there are so many atrocious pastors out there.

So how’d he do? There were genuine moments of inspiration, no question. Obama often shines in uniter mode, and that was certainly true Wednesday night. He was at his best when urging us to “make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds” and cautioning us not to “use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.”

But, overall, I’m not sure he quite managed the delicate balance the speech required. It felt to me like a speech that didn’t entirely transcend politics, but didn’t quite work as political rhetoric either.

That tension was most palpable toward the end, when Obama riffed on Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old who died in the shooting. During a generally moving passage, Obama urged us to “live up to her expectations.” He continued:

I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

I happen to agree with this sentiment. But, if it's going to have much content, it's the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one. After all, the reason the country is so polarized is that we disagree pretty strongly about what would strengthen our democracy (say, a richer social safety net versus greater reliance on the free market and individual responsibility). In fact, it’s the intensity with which we disagree on these questions that made it so easy for each side to fit the Tucson shooting into its existing account of what ails us.

Likewise, consider Obama’s observation that the tragedy could usher in greater civility “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.” I completely agree with the logic of that statement: If the Tucson shootings got us thinking about the need for greater civility, and greater civility is a good thing in itself, then we should pursue it even if it turns out to be unrelated to the shooting. In the same way, an alcoholic who gives up drinking after wrecking his car would have my full endorsement even if he turned out to be sober when he got into the accident.

But, of course, there are lots of things the Tucson shooting got us thinking about even if they don’t turn out to have caused itlike the need for tougher gun laws or better mental health care. It’s possible that neither of these things would have saved lives this past weekend. But, in the aftermath of Tucson, we can be forgiven for thinking they might make our nation a little better. (The same probably goes for a conservative movement that’s less infatuated with the language of armed rebellion.)

Maybe it wasn’t the appropriate time to have a conversation about these issuesin fact, I’d argue that it wasn’t. And, in fairness, I found myself reacting well to the speech emotionally even if it didn’t always hang together for me intellectually. Still, by nodding at the ways the Tucson tragedy might nudge us toward self-improvement, then not following through, Obama’s otherwise eloquent speech left me a bit unsatisfied. Better, I think, to have postponed the search for meaning than to have carried the search into political territory before abruptly pulling back.

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