Barack Obama takes on the presidential role of healer to a distressed nation Wednesday as he speaks at a memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, the site of a mass shooting that has rattled the United States.
The service will honor the six people, among them a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, who were killed Saturday after a 22-year-old gunman allegedly launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She remains in critical condition. Jared Loughner is charged with the shootings and could be sentenced to death.
As Obama also praises the heroism of those who prevented Loughner from getting off even more shots, the president will try to stand above the political crossfire. Each end of the political spectrum is lashing the other, laying blame for creating a climate of paranoia and hatred that could have fostered such an attack.
Obama defined his goal on Monday, saying he hoped to ensure that "out of this tragedy, we can come together as a stronger nation."
That is a mission that has faced the last three president: Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995; George W. Bush six years later after the al-Qaida terrorist attacks; and now Obama.
He has had practice. After the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, Obama sought to help the country make sense of the assault in which 13 people were killed and 29 wounded by a fellow soldier, an Army officer.
Both of Obama's predecessors won political points for their handling of the crises in their terms.
Bush cemented the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as he stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center, speaking through a bullhorn.
In Clinton's case, he mourned the deaths in a speech that helped him rally from a low point in his presidency, a huge defeat for Democrats in Congressional elections the year before.
"I would be very surprised if he is at all political," said Clyde Frazier, a political scientist at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. "He needs to reflect what's on the nation's mind: sorrow; sympathy, not outrage; hope and perseverance."
He recalled Obama's campaign speech on race "at a very difficult time. We are at such a pivotal point yet again."
Thousands of people are expected to attend the memorial service at the university's basketball arena. The event is open to the public. Students, state and federal officials and the school president are all expected to speak, along with Obama.
The White House said Obama would meet privately with the victims' families before the service.
The president will be joined by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, another sign of the message he wants to send: U.S. solidarity. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican members of Arizona's congressional delegation also are traveling with Obama.
In Washington on Wednesday, in the chamber where Giffords serves, the House honored her, the victims of the shooting and those who sought to help them.
The hard left and right have raged across the Internet, talk radio and television since Saturday's shooting, the left, largely, accusing the right of creating a whirlwind of hatred and paranoia that produced a climate that can tip the mentally unbalanced into acts of violence such as the Tucson shooting.
The right has fought back robustly, accusing their ideological opponents of trying to make political points out of tragedy.
Of note, has been criticism of Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and who has aligned herself with the ultraconservative tea party movement. Her Web site during the 2010 election campaign included a map of congressional districts, marked with crosshairs like those in a rifle sight, where the tea party was making a special effort to unseat the incumbents.
One of those districts was Giffords', and she had spoken of that targeting in a television interview last year, warning that such symbolism could have unforeseen consequences.
As politicians and commentators react to the Tucson shooting, they are talking not only about nasty rhetoric but also American gun laws. Loughner, despite having been dismissed from a Tucson-area community college because of questions about his mental stability, was able subsequently to buy the Glock pistol he is alleged to have used in the attacks.
There is, therefore and yet again, debate welling up about lax gun laws in the United States and the need, perhaps, to provide greater security to members of Congress. Such measures, however, could stifle politicians' ability to meet freely with constituents. That is what Giffords was doing when she was shot outside a grocery store last Saturday.
"If you shut down that dialogue, you really hurt our system," he said. "It is very, very important that the people can talk to their representatives."