Obama’s Tucson speech was the best of his presidency, and his challenge to fulfill the expectations of the girl who came to meet her congresswoman on the corner will be a lasting contribution to presidential rhetoric. The suggestion by Garry Wills in “Obama’s Finest Hour” that the speech compares favorably with Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses strikes me as a tad excessive, but Obama gave a beautiful speech at a critical moment and lifted both the country and his own presidency. Everything a speech can do, it did.
In some sense, it was a sermon to himself, since he bears as much blame (and perhaps more) as anyone for the divisive rhetoric that has marked the first two years of his presidency. If there will be no more presidential denigration of political opponents as “enemies,” “hostage takers,” “bitter clingers,” people he has to “clean up after” who should “not do a lot of talking” and ride in the “back of the bus,” both the country and his presidency will be better for it. The clearest test of the Tucson sermon will be how well he is able to adhere to it.
At this moment, it may be worth recalling the final question at George W. Bush’s final news conference on January 12, 2009:
Q … You arrived here wanting to be a uniter, not a divider. Do you think Barack Obama can be a uniter, not a divider? Or is — with the challenges for any President and the unpopular decisions, is it impossible for any President to be uniter, not a divider?
THE PRESIDENT: I hope the tone is different for him than it has been for me. I am disappointed by the tone in Washington, D.C. I tried to do my part by not engaging in the name-calling and — and by the way, needless name-calling. I have worked to be respectful of my opponents on different issues. … It’s just the rhetoric got out of control at times –
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know why. You need to ask those who — those who used the words they used. As I say, it’s not the first time it’s ever happened. … It’s happened throughout our history. And I would hope that, frankly, for the sake of the system itself, that if people disagree with President-Elect Obama, they treat him with respect. … And so I wish him all the best. And no question he’ll be — there will be critics. And there should be. … I just hope the tone is respectful.
It would be a mistake to wish for a Kumbaya country; there are important issues that need to be debated and decided, on which the future of the country rests. But civility in debate can assist in their resolution.
And it would be an even bigger mistake to think that a speech is the solution in every situation. One of the reasons Obama’s sermon was a great speech is that a speech is what the occasion called for. In other situations, particularly in foreign affairs, an outstretched rhetorical hand has only limited efficacy; world problems are rarely resolved by declaring oneself a citizen of the world; and continually declaring that the time is now does not engender respect among the nations.
As Iran continues its efforts to change the Middle East, and with it the global balance of power, Obama’s challenge will be to summon not eloquence but resolution. His finest hour will require more than a speech.