Many have pointed out that President Obama’s speech in Tucson represented a return to his comfort zone. Reminiscent of his 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race and the 2004 Democratic Convention appearance, this speech, they say, represents the President’s skill as an orator and, “conciliator, rising above partisan politics with a call for comity and civility.”
And it is true, he did reclaim his long-lost place as the leader not just of red or blue America. But he did not accomplish this simply through soaring rhetoric (though the speech was top-rate), or generic appeals to civility and working together. Instead the President reprized his unique ability to be what he has called, “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”
Some on the right took comfort that the President, “knocked heads on his own side,” by refuting claims that rhetoric caused the violence, while those on the left celebrated his insistence, in light of alarmist conservative rhetoric, “that we improve the discourse for the sake of our children and our country.” Bipartisan fetishists, of course, were just happy that he seemed to seek a middle ground. Setting aside the merits of any of these arguments, Obama’s success lies not just in his ability to give a speech that appeals to the diverse interests and beliefs of Americans of all political stripes, but that his words and voice actually allow listeners to take different lessons from the same sentence.
Surely this skill represents the President’s innate understanding and connection to the values and motivations of the American public. But it’s also what leaves him so vulnerable to disappointment from all sides when the rubber hits the road on policy decisions. It’s his great strength, and also probably the underlying cause (other than unemployment) of most of the turmoil his administration has battled in the last 2 years .