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Thoughts on the President’s Tucson Address

Let me say that the President’s speech was perfect for the venue and the moment. The tone seemed right; he didn’t have an applause meter behind him, and anyway the ray of light and the celebration of life was completely appropriate for that room and the emotional tenor of it. The emotions seemed genuine and the logic seemed consistent. The only people he needed to please with that speech was the community in Tucson who had just been through a shock, and I’d gather they felt healed by the outcome. People don’t seem to remember that the Clinton speech in Oklahoma City was only considered “partisan” based on Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to it. The actual content pretty closely modeled what Obama did last night, and I thought Obama did a better job of insulating his call for “a more honest” discourse inside an admonition to make our talk and actions worthy of the extraordinary people involved in that tragedy in Tucson. He does this often, this appeal to our better angels. Here’s a key phrase:

“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

I think it’s a worthwhile exercise, instead of pointing fingers, to look inward, to ask ourselves what we could do better with the limited time we have on Earth, how we can do our part to build a better America. This call to service is a feature of Obama’s rhetoric.

I think that also means we can expect that the President applies it to himself. We have 15 million Americans out of work. Millions have seen their unemployment benefits lapse and are probably on the road to a generation of joblessness and rootlessness. We are a better country than that. And yet the jobs crisis is not given the emergency status in the White House it deserves. Are we living up to our children’s expectations when we don’t make sustained pleas to tackle the jobs crisis?

People are being kicked out of their homes without due process. Some of them never missed a payment, an absolutely impossible scenario that shows how disastrous the banks have destroyed the mortgage system, the securitization system and the land title system in this country. I want our democracy to be as good as the best of us imagine it on this point. But powerful banks are not being held to the same standard as any common thief would if they tried to take someone’s home away without proof of ownership. Mr. President, you put in a system to help people modify their loans that is simply not doing the job. You said in a meeting with bloggers that half a million modifications was better than nothing. How does that fit in with the context of last night’s speech? Can’t we expect our leaders to preserve and protect the rule of law, to do their part to form a more perfect union if we do ours?

The nation’s Social Security program is not even adequate at this point, in an age of dwindling pensions and retirement funds. Yet there’s talk you may end up cutting it for future generations, when the retirement crisis figures to only grow worse. Does that meet with the expectations of the three senior citizens brought down by the bullets of an assassin in Tucson? Does the logic of “Social Security will have to be cut later, so to fix it let’s cut it now” meet with the satisfaction of the people you serve?

I thought it was a great speech. As an orator the President does not have a peer. I agree that the process of debate and discussion “is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.” And the Preisdent is not exempt from that debate. He has standards to which to live up just like he reminded the rest of us. He needs to challenge himself to do better just like he counseled to the rest of us. I know he wrote the speech, I hope he read it over on the plane home and recommitted to the thoughts contained therein.

…By the way, no question that Sarah Palin looks absolutely tiny this morning. To me, clearing her low bar is not an accomplishment. But Obama cleared it pretty easily.

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David Dayen

David Dayen