Nation turns its eyes to Obama as mourner in chief in Arizona

President Obama will try to make sense of the senseless on Wednesday as he travels to a memorial service for six people killed in the assassination attempt of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). 

Obama will speak at the University of Arizona Wednesday evening in front of a crowd expected to include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Obama defeated for president in 2008. 

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The address could be a key moment in Obama’s presidency, as the nation stops to hear what the president has to say about a shooting that has shaken Capitol Hill and raised questions about the heated rhetoric of today’s politics and the security provided for members of Congress. 

Democratic and Republican strategists declined to comment on the politics of Obama’s appearance at the service, but it’s clear the event could have an effect on the president’s approval rating, which his been on a slight rise in Gallup’s daily polling in December, hitting 50 percent in polling over December and January. 

Obama will be walking in the footsteps of former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, who in moments of tragedy were able to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to unify a nation with words. 

The nation remembers Bush standing on the rubble at Ground Zero, a key turning point for a president who came into office after losing the popular vote. Bush’s approval ratings in the aftermath of 9/ 11 skyrocketed to 90 percent in late September of that year, turning what looked like a lame-duck presidency into his second term. 

Similarly, reporters who covered the Clinton White House note his comeback in 1995 after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. 

The comparisons between Obama and Clinton are striking, as Clinton’s comeback came after a divisive healthcare debate eroded his popularity and devastating midterm elections ended Democratic control of the House. 

Obama already has a head start on the subject of political rhetoric, which has received new attention from both parties in days since the Arizona shooting. 

Obama has repeatedly and publicly lamented the tone of a national debate that runs from the anger of the professional left to the rantings of the birther movement. 

Having spent two years disgusted and disappointed with the talking heads from his own party, Obama is perfectly positioned to be the man in the middle who attempts to cool down the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.  

“He has a real chance to raise the issue of ‘civility’ in politics without demonizing people,” said Larry Berman, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at the University of California-Davis. “Only the president can be both our national divider and unifier, sometimes in the same week.”

“I think he needs to say ‘let’s wait for all the facts and then let’s have a national discussion for ways of improving the way we speak to one another,’ ” Berman added.

Moments like Wednesday’s provide a natural advantage to the incumbent in the White House. No other office in the country comes with that level of prestige, power and responsibility. 

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for example, just finished the first season of her reality show. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is on a book tour. And Obama is preparing for the State of the Union as he juggles responses to the Arizona shootings with a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Compare Palin’s week to Obama’s — Palin has found herself at the center of controversy this week, under attack from left-wing critics upset over website graphics that showed the Giffords’s district in crosshairs. Obama had the solemnity of Monday’s moment of silence for the victims in Arizona. 

The conventional wisdom is that Obama can be too robotic in emotional times. To be sure, the president’s mention on Monday of a “mechanism” for memorializing the victims of the Arizona shooting was a far cry from “I feel your pain.”

But it’s not difficult to imagine David Axelrod and the Obama image team working over the next two years to transform talk of aloofness or emotional detachment to that of a steady hand in rough seas.

And when the political debate gets heated again — and it will — the White House hopes Obama will be the man who never got too high or too low, and through it all called for a more civil discourse. It’s a behavioral trait that served Obama well in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, when McCain looked erratic in calling for a suspension of the campaign during the financial crisis, while Obama looked calm in comparison.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com