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07 December 2023

Healing, the Obama way

US President Barack Obama gives his speech at the event 'Together We Thrive. (AFP)

By Reuters

In the heat of the congressional election campaign last year, President Barack Obama sometimes struggled to connect with Americans.

On Wednesday in Tucson, he may well have regained some of the rhetorical footing that helped him win the White House in 2008.

A senseless shooting spree in Tucson last Saturday that killed six and gravely wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords thrust Obama into the healing role.

National crises require presidents to rise above. Ronald Reagan did it in responding to the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. So did Bill Clinton in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, and George W. Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In a poignant address at a memorial service, Obama sought to set a tone for how Americans should react to the tragic events in Tucson. Here's a look at some of what he may have achieved with his emotional speech.

- Seeking the high road. Obama did not take sides in a bitter debate about political rhetoric and instead urged Americans not to seek an easy answer for the shootings.

"I believe that for all our imperfections we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us," he said.

- Highlighting important policy areas. Obama gave prominence to the concerns of gun safety and mental health by saying those issues were part of the national discussion after the shooting.

But he did not endorse or call for specific changes - thereby not risking criticism from the powerful gun lobby or people who are skeptical of his healthcare reform efforts.

- Connecting with Americans. Obama did not rely on a teleprompter for his speech as he often does and connected with the audience with a speech that focused on the victims and called on Americans to come together.

The speech will be best remembered for the image he left of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl shot and killed in the rampage. She had attended the Giffords event because she wanted to meet her congresswoman.

"If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today," Obama said. "And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."