The contrasts, both in style and in tone, were undeniable. Perhaps more telling though are the apparent motivations behind the two public statements made by Barack Obama and Sarah Palin yesterday, in response to the assassination attempt on the life of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Obama, speaking at the Arizona memorial service for the other victims of Saturday's shooting, did what presidents do. Looking and sounding more presidential then he has at any other point during his tenure at the White House, Obama served as the comforter-in-chief both for the families and friends in attendance, and for the rest of us watching the nationally televised speech, still trying to make sense of it all.
He eulogized the fallen, offered the support of the nation to the wounded and to the families of those who were lost, and praised those who helped prevent any further damage as heroes. Obama also wisely took the high road in choosing not to point fingers, place blame, or otherwise politicize the tragic events in Arizona at a time more appropriately given over to reflection and grieving for those who were lost.
If anything, Obama seized the moment to urge a return to civility in the political debate, and for a more rational, less inflammatory tone of unity in the national discourse seeking to find common solutions to the complex problems facing America in tough economic times.
Whether Obama's words continue to resonate by this time tomorrow or even next week remains an open question of course. But Obama's speech on Wednesday transcended partisan politics. This was a president doing what all presidents during a national tragedy do, much as Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing, and yes, George W. Bush did after 9/11.
That said, in a lot of ways Obama also looked more like the rock star of the 2008 campaign than he has at any point since then. The memorial event at times seemed more like a campaign rally—there were several times when Obama's remarks were interrupted by spontaneous eruptions of cheer—than a somber memorial service. Obama's speech also served as a reminder of just how electric he can be as a speaker. You almost expected the crowd to start chanting "Yes, We Can" at times.
For that reason, it also reminded me again of just why I've become so disappointed with his presidency at times. Aside from the way he has all too often met the punches of his Republican detractors by opening up a bi-partisan can of compromise on them, Obama has also seemed detached from the populist movement that helped elect him. Obama is the sort of speaker who, at his best, can galvanize people from all walks of life into action. Which is exactly why I'd like to see him do a lot more speaking.