Obama's role at Tucson memorial service tonight: healer-in-chief

At Tucson memorial service Wednesday, Obama shoulders the duty of trying help a shaken nation heal. After the apparent targeting of a US congresswoman, what will he say? What should he say?

Matt Sullivan/Reuters
People attend a memorial service outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, Jan. 10, for the victims of last Saturday's shooting in Tucson.

President Obama on Wednesday travels to Tucson, Ariz., to shoulder a sad responsibility: serving as healer-in-chief of the United States.

It is a responsibility that too many of his predecessors had to shoulder during their own terms. When assassins strike, or a space shuttle explodes, or terrorists attack the nation, voters look to the White House to honor the victims of the tragedy and to try to explain how strength can be drawn from grief.

Now it is Mr. Obama’s turn as he speaks Wednesday night from the city where a mass shooting left six dead, a congresswoman gravely injured, and the nation shaken.

RELATED: Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner: 5 of his strange ideas

“Every person in the city of Tucson – and I trust in the state and the nation – recognizes the importance of the president of the United States coming to help us pray and heal from this [terrible] tragedy,” said Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup on Wednesday.

Obama's mission is the same one that Bill Clinton had after the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City, or that George W. Bush had after 9/11. It is to transcend political differences and unify Americans.

The president himself on Monday acknowledged this, saying he hopes to ensure that “out of this tragedy, we can come together as a stronger nation.”

The problem for Obama is that he must try to do this at a moment when the circumstances of tragedy have fueled political division more than muted it. Those on the left accuse conservatives of using aggressive rhetoric that created a climate of violence in which the shooting occurred. Those on the right respond that accused killer Jared Lee Loughner is an obviously disturbed young man with almost incoherent philosophical beliefs, and that it’s libelous to blame others' words for his deeds.

How should Obama deal with this in his speech at a community memorial service at the University of Arizona? By emphasizing what all sides share as Americans, and ignoring the political debate.

“For the president tonight ... it is more important than anything else that he keep away from the political message involved,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in a live Web chat on Wednesday.

The pattern of these healing speeches by now is well-established, noted Mr. Hess, himself a veteran Republican presidential staffer. They are like mourning sessions in a house of worship, with the nation’s chief executive delivering the eulogy.

Obama will likely begin with personal notes about the victims of the shooting – honoring their lives and noting the sadness that those lives were cut short. Then he may praise the acts of heroism that occurred in response to the tragedy.

For instance, Daniel Hernandez Jr., an intern to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wisely applied pressure to the wounded lawmaker’s skull, perhaps saving her life.

Then the president may well shift to a larger message. What will that be? Only he and his speechwriters know at the moment. It might be the need to reach out to those who appear disturbed and alone, and possibly mentally ill, in an effort to make healing connections before it is too late.

“This should be a short speech – it should not be grand. Its simplicity would be its importance,” said Hess.

RELATED: Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner: 5 of his strange ideas

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