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Posted at 3:06 PM ET, 01/11/2011

What President Obama should say in Tucson (and how he should say it)

By Chris Cillizza



President Obama will speak at a memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting tomorrow

When President Obama travels to Arizona tomorrow to address a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson, the eyes of the country will be on him.

Modern presidential history is dotted with moments just like this one -- Ronald Reagan's speech to the country after the Challenger shuttle explosion, Bill Clinton's address at the Oklahoma City bombing memorial service, George W. Bush's speech following the Sept. 11 attacks -- when the nation turned to its chief executive for sympathy, empathy and reassurance.

The stakes for Obama's address are high. Clinton's speech after Oklahoma City is regarded by many as a turning point in his presidency and one of the building blocks of his successful reelection in 1996. Bush's steadfastness in the face of peril drew kudos and helped his party define the national security debate in their favor -- a dynamic that led to history-making gains in 2002 and his eventual reelection in 2004.

For Obama, the challenge of connecting with voters is unique. He has been criticized -- even from within his own party -- for his struggles to appear empathetic in public appearances. There's little doubt of Obama's ability to deliver a great speech but connecting with the average American is a larger challenge for the chief executive and may well be the standard by which he is judged in the wake of the address.

Examining the speeches given by those three past presidents is instructive when considering what Obama should say and, perhaps as importantly, how he should say it.

The trio of presidential addresses are not entirely analagous -- Bush and Clinton were speaking after acts of terrorism while Reagan's address came after an entirely different sort of disaster -- but there are common threads that run though all three speeches that can provide a window into how Obama might best approach what is one of the more challenging addresses of his public life to date.

Here are a few of the lessons:

* Be Brief: There's always danger in moments like these for presidents who can look as though they are turning the focus of the tragedy to themselves rather than the victims. The best way to combat that perception may be to be as brief as possible in your remarks. Clinton, famed for his long-windedness, spoke for only nine minutes during the Oklahoma City memorial. Both Bush and Reagan went on for just over four minutes. People want to see and hear their president at moments like this but they don't want to feel as though their president is turning the spotlight on himself or in any way trying to take political advantage of the tragedy. Hit the high notes and be done with it.

* Be Idealistic: The best of these sorts of presidential speeches amount to a rallying cry for the American public, reminding people about what's good about the country. High profile tragedies like the shooting in Tucson have a tendency to shake our collective faith as a country and it often falls to the president to restore it. "These acts shattered steel but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve," Bush said. "The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave," said Reagan. Casting the public as resilient defenders of the American ideal is almost certainly a winning rhetorical strategy. (One interesting factoid: All three former presidents used the word "freedom" at least once in each of their addresses.)

* Be Biblical: At moments like these, even many people who have little use for religion in their daily lives may look to a higher power for answers. Presidential speeches reflect that reality as both Clinton and Bush either directly quoted from or referenced the Book of Psalms in the closing moments of their addresses. (Reagan went with a poem by John Magee entitled "High Flight".) Obama has regularly quoted scripture in his relatively brief rhetorical career -- he seems to favor the biblical sentiment of being your brother's keeper -- and almost certainly will lean on it again in his remarks tomorrow night.

Make no mistake: this is a moment in the Obama presidency. For a president who has struggled convincing average Americans that he knows in his bones how they feel, it is an opportunity. Will he seize it?

By Chris Cillizza  | January 11, 2011; 3:06 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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