The bleak aftermath of the weekend shooting rampage in Tucson is the first test of President Obama's skills as consoler-in-chief — a recurring demand of the job that some presidents embrace more easily than others. So far, the administration's response to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 19 others has been nimble: Obama spoke out soon after the events transpired on Saturday, stayed out of the public eye on Sunday while ordering government flags to half-staff and on Monday participated in a moment of silence at the White House.
Administration officials are weighing a trip to Arizona. For Obama, a central challenge lies in balancing his natural tendency toward cool detachment with the need to offer succor and reassuring leadership.
“Right now, the main thing we're doing is to offer our thoughts and prayers to those who've been impacted, making sure that we're joining together and pulling together as a country,” Obama said Monday in the Oval Office. “And as president of the United States, but also as a father, obviously, I'm spending a lot of time just thinking about the families and reaching out to them.”
All modern presidents are tested by disaster and tragedy.
Former President Ronald Reagan is remembered for rallying the nation with a moving speech after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
Former President Bill Clinton, days after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, spoke emotively at a memorial service, telling grieving residents, “We mourn with you.”
And former President George W. Bush, criticized for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was earlier praised for his defiant bullhorn speech from a pile of rubble at Ground Zero in 2001.
Although varying in magnitude, each event carried a public expectation that the president — whoever he was — would strike the right notes to restore America's sense of itself, said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist.
“All of these things momentarily shatter our sense of understanding and our command of who we are individually and as a nation,” Jillson said. “What Americans want to see from the president is that he shares their emotions and that he understands these events as they understand them.”
For Obama, a trip to Tucson could be fraught. The huge, intrusive presence of the president, his staff, the national media and the cumbersome security he requires could easily distract from memorial observances.
“I am not sure how much more Americans want from him at this point,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “I do think you need to keep a certain reserve.”
But having made changing the tone of politics a key theme of his campaign, Obama may face a certain obligation to speak out, given the blame circulating over the weekend shooting.
Jane Hall, a communications professor at American University, said she suspects Obama will raise the issue in his State of the Union speech later this month.
“My guess about him is that he may be somewhat cautious, and rightfully so,” Hall said. “We want emotion from our presidents at times like this…but if he was out there too soon, I think he would be open to criticism.”