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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Obama bridges a chasm

Waiting for Obama to speak tonight, I thought, as I'm sure many did, that he could not simply give another tender and eloquent consolation speech, as he did when Gabby Giffords was shot.  He can be so eloquent about love, and family, and the nation as family -- you could even say that's why he was elected, as that theme catapulted him to prominence in 2004.   But that would not be enough tonight. The policy void is too gaping, the collective guilt about all these mass murders too raw, his own silence on the gun front too deafening.

And yet, he could not very well talk to an auditorium full of grieving parents and a grieving community about legislation he would send up to Congress.   How would he square that circle?

He did so in the simplest terms. He boiled down all human endeavor, our whole duty, from the personal to the professional to the political, to taking care of children, to creating a community that takes care of its children.  And after five years of uplifting flattery, he said that we all have to do it better. He drew a straight line from the love we all feel for our children to our collective failure to keep them, and all of us (not just children literally understood, as he invoked all the recent massacres), safe from mayhem - and more broadly, to foster their welfare and potential. The speech text is not up yet; here is a NYT quote-and-paraphrase:

Mr. Obama said the nation is failing at what he called “our first task,” which he said was to care for the children of the nation.

“It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right,” he said, asking: “Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?”

Mr. Obama asked whether the nation is doing enough to give all children a chance at a good life with “happiness and with purpose.”

“If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is no,” he said. “We are not doing enough, and we will have to change.”
Above all, he promised a sustained, more or less immediate effort from the White House.  He implicitly shared the failure to date by vowing action:
We can’t tolerate this any more,” he said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

Mr. Obama said that he will use the power of his office to confront the spate of shooting that have claimed so many lives, many of them children.

He was not specific, but he made it clear that he will pursue change in the face of political opposition that has stopped new gun laws for years.

“I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens,” he said, “in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have?”

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year is simply the price of our freedom?”
Until now, he has implicitly suggested that we are powerless in this regard. By way of contrast, he held up the faculty of Sandy Hook Elementary School as national exemplars, first detailing their heroic efforts to shield children from the onslaught, and later speaking of us all, declaring, "we know we're always doing right when we take care of them."

He didn't say what legislation he would propose. He didn't have to. Everyone knows that substantive gun control measures will be forthcoming, and we can judge them and fight over them when they're proposed.

Tonight, the promise of a sustained effort was enough.   That freed him to speak from the heart as a father. Father in chief, in fact.

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