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The White House has already demonstrated that it is taking Obama's response to the attack seriously. Aides have sent out a steady stream of updates on the number of phone calls Obama has made to lawmakers and family members of victims of the shootings.
There have also been regular updates on the president's numerous briefings on the status of the investigation. He publicly addressed the tragedy just hours after the shooting, canceled a scheduled trip to New York this week and immediately dispatched FBI Director Robert Mueller to Arizona to oversee the investigation.
Arguably the president's toughest challenge is the reality that partisanship is alive and well on Capitol Hill.
"Democrats are looking for him to self-righteously spank the Republicans, and the Republicans are looking for him to say it isn't their fault," one senior Democratic aide said. "Can he walk the tightrope?"
One Senate Democratic aide summed up the conflicting feelings of some Democrats who want Obama to go after divisive political figures such as Sarah Palin and leaders of the tea party movement while simultaneously urging the country to tone down the partisan rhetoric.
"On the one hand, I want Palin to look fringe. I want Obama to show that he represents the country," the aide said. "But on the other hand, if it looks in any way like he's trying to politicize this, it will be a disaster."
Another senior Democratic aide said Members are looking to Obama now more than ever to bridge partisan differences.
"Not just Members, but Americans, are looking for the president to rise to the occasion as he has in the past with the speech on race, for example, and they expect that he will," the aide said.
Senior Republicans echoed the need for Obama to lead by example, but they speculated the Members on their side of the aisle will be looking more to their own party leaders for guidance.
"A lot of folks here in Congress will be looking to the Speaker — an institutionalist — more than the president for a steady hand," one top GOP aide said.
"Instead of following the lead of some Congressional Democrats attempting to exploit this tragedy for legislative and political means, we expect the president to rise above them and use the bully pulpit to comfort the nation," another senior GOP aide said.
Obama may have already helped to reset his presidency somewhat with the successes of the lame-duck Congress, during which he was able to deliver a few significant wins for his party, including a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and passage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But as has been the case in the past with presidents faced with unimaginable tragedies, Obama's biggest leadership test to date will arguably happen with tonight's speech.
"He needs to show some emotion, pain, and reconnect with the American people on a deeply personal level," a senior House Democratic aide said. "What I think he can do is reframe the debate and take some of the anger out of it and position those who seek to divide by using harsh and over-the-top rhetoric as counterproductive to the goals of America. He should remind folks that no single party is to blame here — we all can do better."comments powered by Disqus