Obama's Speech Wins Over Critics

President Barack Obama's speech at a service for the Arizona shooting victims came amid an effort to recast himself as a unifying figure, after two years of partisan fights.

Soon after he left the podium, it was clear he had taken another step in that direction.

President Obama's speech at a memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shooting has been praised for hitting all the right notes. WSJ's Gerald F. Seib says the President rose above the "who's responsible" debate.

On Thursday, the speech won praise from a vast swath of the political spectrum, including Democrats who have criticized Mr. Obama as insufficiently liberal and possible Republican challengers in 2012, among them former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Some commentators who have spent two years criticizing the president were lavish with their praise. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said he "wouldn't underestimate how this is going to affect the perception of the president."

Mr. Obama's speech, televised across the major networks, combined vignettes of the victims and heroes of Saturday's shooting rampage with a call for Americans to practice a gentler style of political debate.

"The president hit exactly the right tone," said Ed Rollins, a Republican political consultant. "This was above partisanship, which is a good place for a president to be."

The effect may soon fade—as it has for other presidents after other national tragedies. But for now, Mr. Obama may be in a better position to capitalize on an uptick in his popularity during upcoming clashes with Congress over policy.

After a Republican rout of his party in midterm elections in November, Mr. Obama had committed to work across party lines to improve the economy and take on other challenges. Last month, he helped engineer a sweeping tax-cut deal that marked the first major bipartisan legislation of his presidency.

His approval rating in recent weeks has risen as high as 50% in Gallup's daily tracking poll, after sitting in the mid-40s for much of last year and falling even lower during the polarizing days of the health-care debate last spring.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama spoke at a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shootings in Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday.

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obaspeech2

Just as President Bill Clinton did in 1995, Mr. Obama likely will have to rely on public opinion to bolster him should showdowns arise with the Republican-led House. GOP leaders there want to repeal the president's health-care law, limit his push for infrastructure projects and bring nondefense discretionary spending down to 2008 levels.

In Tucson, Mr. Obama walked a careful line. He warned against trying to use the tragedy to advance either party's political goals—on the left and the right.

He urged Americans to tone down sometimes-heated political rhetoric—something liberals have been pushing since Saturday.

But Mr. Obama said incivility didn't cause the shootings, a point made by many conservatives. He suggested that blaming gun laws or any other cause misses the mark, too.

"What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other," he said.

The White House said Mr. Obama would build on these themes at his next big opportunity to address the public, in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 25.

Some analysts compared Mr. Obama's address to Mr. Clinton's speech after the Oklahoma City bombing in spring 1995, but there are differences in the approaches the two presidents adopted in the face of tragedy.

At the memorial service in Oklahoma City, Mr. Clinton struck a similar tone to Mr. Obama's speech in Tucson, when he emphasized the suffering of the victims. But the next day, Mr. Clinton went after what he called the "purveyors of hatred and division" during a speech in Minneapolis, attacking conservative radio hosts who "leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable."

Mr. Obama has kept his distance from claims that heated political rhetoric can incite violence.

Mr. Clinton also used the Oklahoma City bombing to pursue a legislative agenda against domestic terrorism, said Paul Begala, a senior Clinton aide at the time. Mr. Obama has indicated he would not use the Tucson shootings for legislative pursuits.

But in both cases, the Democratic presidents have held themselves up as moderate voices, against the extremists in Mr. Clinton's case, above them in Mr. Obama's.

Mr. Begala said the trust Mr. Clinton earned with the public in the wake of Oklahoma City served him well that winter during his budget fights with the GOP. That could also be the case with Mr. Obama, he said, but months will pass before any similar showdowns.

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