When President Obama performed his “Comeback Kid” act late last year, pushing through Congress a number of important bills, observers marveled at the sudden transformation. The president had morphed from the hapless, listless victim of the midterm shellacking and surprised everyone by becoming a new deft, cunning politician.
But watching the Obama who came before the cameras on the day of the Tucson massacre, it seems the nation has suffered a great loss with the president’s transformation.
Where did the inspiring orator with the soaring prose go?
Where is the Obama who could summon the nation and call its people to greatness?
Where is the man who, campaigning in the United States, captured the imagination of the world, making them believe again in America?
With the American people trying to make sense of the attack that left a congresswoman fighting for her life and half a dozen people dead, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, it was precisely the moment for the country’s leader to offer words of wisdom, comfort and direction. A moment to put the people’s feelings into words, the way Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush managed to do in times of crisis.
Instead, Obama promised that “we are going to get to the bottom of this.” The “new” Obama, it seems, has grown too concerned with occupying the center, too worried about not offending anyone, too timid to follow what during the 2008 campaign appeared to be his calling, to lead and inspire.
Obama was right in noting that “we don’t yet know what provoked this unspeakable act.” To be sure, many were quick to ascribe blame. But there is a reason the public conversation quickly turned to the tone of the political debate.
What was once the normal, expected give-and-take of political disagreement ― part of the process through which a democracy makes difficult decisions ― has become a poisonous, ill-spirited battle to manipulate emotions and create intense personal animosity. Americans are deeply troubled by that. And the rest of the world has noticed this distasteful turn of events.
When Chinese students took over Tiananmen Square demanding democratic change, they built a replica of the Statue of Liberty. They called this American icon the Goddess of Democracy. American democracy today would have a harder time inspiring those who strive against tyranny.
True, we don’t know what motivated the shooter. He seems clearly disturbed, and his favorite books, listed in his MySpace page, include both Marx and Hitler. You could blame left or right for shaping him. And one could legitimately turn to left or right on the tone of political debate.
The tea party and many of its leaders seem to enjoy gun-related metaphors in their speech, and their penchant for carrying weapons to political rallies (as happened at events Giffords headlined) are impossible to ignore today. But the bitter vitriol against a sitting president arguably started during the Bush administration, when leftist activists spoke with frightening passion against the then-president.
The shooting of Rep. Giffords produced an intense visceral reaction across the country. There is a powerful sense that something important has happened; that this is a turning point for America. This could mark the turn to a higher road in politics, or it could take us in the direction of even more vitriol or violence.
We needed Obama to help guide the power of the moment in a constructive direction. He failed miserably at the task.
Even if the accused was not influenced by politics, this event has the potential to change America, and certainly to shape its image and influence abroad.
Obama did not articulate any of the fears and frustrations overflowing in the country. It was left to the Sheriff of Pima County to call for Americans “to do a little soul searching.”
Without blaming anyone, Obama could have spoken of the need to protect democracy. He could have noted that attacking a member of Congress undermines all that Americans have spent more than two centuries fighting to protect. Or mentioned that killing politicians is what we’re trying to persuade people in Iraq and Afghanistan not to do if they want a better life, a better country.
It was Rep. Giffords who had spoken of America’s democracy as “a light, a beacon really, around the world.” Obama missed a key opportunity to protect that flickering beacon from the winds threatening to extinguish it. Maybe he can still reinvent himself. Maybe this new, rather ordinary politician can conjure back the old Obama, the one whose stirring words once seemed capable of moving people to build a better world.
By Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)