By Sam Youngman - 01/13/11 06:50 PM EST
The White House hopes to build on any momentum created from President Obama’s emotional speech in Arizona with the State of the Union address later this month.
Obama’s speech Wednesday night at a memorial service for victims of Saturday’s shootings in Arizona has earned nearly universal approval, with many conservatives praising the president’s tone and comparing the remarks to other addresses previous presidents have made following national tragedies.
“We are not going to remove disagreements from our democracy, and we shouldn't” Gibbs said at his briefing. The “tone and approach” politicians employ in their disagreements “is what we all hope changes.”
Obama, who has been somber and reflective publicly since the shooting, said in his address that the Arizona shootings cannot become “one more occasion” for Americans “to turn on one another.”
He grew emotional when talking about the victims, particularly 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was the same age as Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha. Green’s funeral will be held Thursday.
Obama described Green as “so curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic. So deserving of our love, and so deserving of our good example.”
“If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today,” Obama said in words that drew a long ovation from the 14,000 people gathered in the University of Arizona’s basketball stadium.
Obama also dealt directly with the issue of political rhetoric in his speech. He made it clear that he did not believe it was to blame for the violence that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), but said that the nation nonetheless should seek a more civil political dialogue.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” Obama said. “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
Democrats and Republicans alike hailed Obama for offering unifying words. Even members of Fox News’s panel, no fans of the president, had compliments, with Chris Wallace calling it a “very powerful speech.”
Richard Lowry, writing for the conservative National Review, said Obama had given a “magnificent performance” and “re-captured some of the tone of his famous 2004 convention speech.”
The address was a stark contrast with a long message Sarah Palin posted Wednesday morning on her Facebook page, which dominated much of the news cycle leading up to Obama’s address.
Palin chose the day of the memorial service to blast the media and pundits for “blood libel.” Palin, a possible GOP opponent of Obama’s in the 2012 presidential race, had come under criticism from some who linked political rhetoric and specific images on Palin’s website to Saturday’s shootings.
As details have emerged about the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, it increasingly appears he was not motivated by politics. But the timing and tone of Palin’s message brought some criticism from both sides of the aisle, with some Republicans questioning her word choices.
Gibbs refused to chime in on Thursday. “I think there are plenty of people who can render opinions on that,” he said. “I'm not going to do that.”
Obama’s approval ratings have begun to pick up since the midterm elections, where Democrats suffered a historic defeat in the House. The White House then compromised on a tax package with Republicans, and also saw several priorities approved by the lame-duck Congress.
An AP-GfK poll published Wednesday found 53 percent of respondents approve of Obama’s job performance, while a Quinnipiac University poll showed Obama’s approval rating rising to 48 percent.
Wednesday’s speech was seen as a key moment for the president, and Gibbs said Obama worked tirelessly on the address.
“Last night was a speech that was very much the president's,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs told reporters traveling back to Washington with the president on Air Force One that Obama felt good about the speech. The president began working on the draft with speechwriter Cody Keenan late Monday, and the president was still editing his remarks after landing in Arizona Wednesday afternoon.
President Clinton rebounded with the public after he sought to unify the country following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and political pundits will be watching the polls closely in the following weeks to see if Saturday’s address marks a turning point for Obama, whose approval ratings have steadily declined since entering office.
Gibbs said there is now a new window for bipartisanship as members of both parties reflect on the nature of public service, and he said Obama will work harder to reach out to Republicans.
“I think you'll see a greater effort on our part in a much more systematic way, to do the types of meetings that we had here before,” Gibbs said.
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons hailed the president's speech as a game-changer.
"The president often fills a role similar to a single parent in our American family: protecting us from danger, encouraging us to succeed, challenging us to do better and comforting us when we feel vulnerable and sad," Simmons said. "Last night President Obama fulfilled many of those responsibilities and reminded us why we voted for him in the first place."
Another Democratic strategist said Obama's speech could be a "turning point" in his administration.
"The most powerful place a president can be is a nonpartisan uniter that doesn't let the screaming left or right dictate his presidency," the strategist said. "Now, the question: Does this tone and image last, or does it have a shelf-life of a few weeks?"
Mark Corallo, a GOP strategist and veteran of the Bush administration, had a far more tepid response. He said that while it was "one of President Obama's better speeches, Obama still missed an opportunity.
"I didn't think it was a game-changing speech," Corallo said. "I still think there was a disconnect between the event and the speech."
Corallo said he was put off by the president's decision to address the debate over political rhetoric, saying Obama would have been wise to keep his focus on the victims.
"It was a memorial for people who were murdered by a madman. Let's leave the discussion of our political discourse to another day. I think that would have been way more statesman like because that would have put everybody in a box."
—This post was updated at 2:51 p.m.