The adult in the room

THE ADULT IN THE ROOM…. In his remarks last night, President Obama was gentle in his appeal for civility and unity, careful not to assign blame. Confronting the larger debate about the discourse, he didn’t lecture his audience about what they should do, but rather, asked us to aim higher while he led by example.

With this in mind, something Joe Klein wrote last night reminded me of a larger point.

It was a remarkably personal speech, effortlessly sweeping away any notion of pomposity, over-intellectuality or distance. It was written and delivered in plain English. It summoned images, and emotions, that every American — even those who cannot countenance his legitimacy — could relate to and be moved by. […]

And in summoning the community and the nation and the Congresswoman that Christine Taylor Green imagined we are, he summoned for us the country that we should be. On this night, certainly, he was the President she — and we — imagined he might be. On this night, finally, he became President of all the people. It was a privilege to behold.

Republican pollster Steve Lombardo noted something similar last night. “It was supposed to be simply a chance to make a good speech, but it may be more than that,” Lombardo said. “It may be a time when we look back and say that he re-made himself tonight into the President we thought he could be.”

On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer added, “I wouldn’t underestimate how this is going to affect the perception of president.”

And what might that new perception be? To me, it’s that of President Grown-Up. As the tragedy unfolded in Tucson, the usual suspects began a predictable conversation, and for five straight days, we were enveloped in tiresome squabbling.

Last night, the grown up in the White House stood above the noise. “Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy,” he said. “We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future. But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

In a very different context, Greg Sargent noted several weeks ago that the president, in the wake of the midterms, may very well “cast himself” as “Washington’s resident adult in a town full of bickering children.”

That image shined bright 12 hours ago.

I think the media likes to look for these kinds of moments. It makes analysis easier to have concrete turning points that observers can refer back to later as part of a historical shorthand. We’re told, for example, that Bill Clinton’s turning point in 1995 came as part of his response to the terrorism in Oklahoma City, and while the truth is more nuanced, the details are rounded as part of a larger narrative. Indeed, on Monday, before we even knew that Obama would travel to Tucson, the lead Politico story already told us this had already become “Barack Obama’s Oklahoma City moment.”

I tend to think much of this is overwrought, but by delivering in a big way last night, Obama not only brought comfort to a grieving community, he gave a political world a chance to tell a new story about his presidency.