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First Thoughts: Obama recaptures his 2004 voice

Obama recaptures his 2004 voice…. He addressed the civility debate head-on… The Incredibly Shrinking Palin… Boehner’s statesman-like speech, then his unforced error… And Pawlenty’s big day.

*** Obama recaptures his 2004 voice: The past two years have made the 2004 convention speech that helped launch Barack Obama’s national profile -- “There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America” -- seem like an eternity ago. Health care. “You lie.” The 2010 midterm campaign. And most recently, the partisan back-and-forth over Saturday’s shooting in Arizona. But in an address that was the Obama he sold himself as during the '08 campaign (hopeful, uplifting, focused on Americans’ better angels), the president last night recaptured that 2004 voice as he honored the dead, the wounded, and the heroes in Saturday’s shooting. “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized … it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” Obama said. He later added, “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.”

*** Addressing civility head-on: Indeed, the most surprising part of last night’s speech -- beyond breaking the news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ (D) eyes had opened -- was that Obama addressed the civility debate head-on, but with a twist. In the hours leading up to his address, we were convinced he was going to duck that debate, opting instead to eulogize the fallen and celebrate the heroes. But he must have realized that he couldn’t avoid it, especially after all the attention from Sarah Palin’s “blood libel” Web video. At the end of his remarks, he focused on the 9-year-old girl who died in Saturday’s shooting, Christina Taylor Green. (Being a father of young girls, that was something in Obama’s wheelhouse.) “I want to live up to her expectations,” he said. “I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.” Atlantic Monthly writer (and former Carter speechwriter) Jim Fallows ranked Obama's speech last night in Obama's top-three addresses, joining the 2004 Dem convention and the 2008 Philly race speeches. It's hard to disagree.

*** The Incredibly Shrinking Palin? The president’s speech made Palin’s response look very small by comparison. While Obama tried to uplift, Palin tried to settle scores. While the president called for more civility, the former Alaska governor talked about duels and “blood libel.” And while Obama’s message was, well, presidential, Palin’s was not. We’ll say this: If Palin has ambitions for the White House -- and we’re still not sure she does -- then her tone, message, and timing from her eight-minute video was a serious miscalculation. Is this what happens when you live in a bubble? Is this what happens when you don't have advisers you trust that live outside her bubble? Palin's speech struck as a natural response only if she spent the last three days reading every nasty email and Tweet she received, and didn't extract herself from the story.

*** Boehner’s unforced error: While Obama was in the spotlight in Arizona, newly minted Speaker John Boehner was in the spotlight back on Capitol Hill. And he delivered, with what is now becoming a trademark emotion, in his address honoring Giffords and the other victims of Saturday’s shooting. Roll Call writes, “Instead of playing the role of a partisan, Boehner found himself practicing the art of a statesman. ‘Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not,’ Boehner said Wednesday in floor remarks on the tragedy. ‘This is a time for the House to lock arms, in prayer for those fallen and wounded, and in resolve to carry on the dialogue of democracy.’” A strong moment. Yet Boehner committed an unforced error a few hours later when the news came out -- also from Roll Call -- that he hosted an RNC cocktail party last night at the same time as the Tucson memorial. As one Boehner fan put it to us: it was a bit "tone deaf."

*** Pawlenty’s big day: Because of what happened in Arizona, this might not have turned out to be the best week to grab the 2012 spotlight. But former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has been able to make some news surrounding the release of his new book, “Courage to Stand.” First, he took a subtle jab at Palin’s crosshair/target map. Last night, he was on the “Daily Show,” where he addressed the civility debate. “We got to be really careful here because if you start saying, ‘You can say this, you can’t say that; You can use that tone, you can’t use that tone,’ then pretty soon you know you start to discourage, maybe chill, intimidate.” Today, Pawlenty gives a speech at 12:30 pm ET at the National Press Club. He also attends a book signing in DC and meets with College Republicans at George Washington University. Pawlenty's had a hard time breaking out recently, but is it possible that his less combative personality actually helps him stand out? Something to ponder.

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