Tucson Tragedy Will Test the President

Former presidential adviser turned Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel once infamously said that a politician should never let a crisis go to waste, because crises allow you to do what you cannot do in ordinary times.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later paraphrased Emanuel, and agreed with it in the context of the economic crisis.  Here is video of both remarks.

Saturday's tragic events in Tucson, in which Rep. Gabby Giffords was grievously wounded in a shooting that left six dead, among them a nine-year-old girl born on Sept 11, 2001, and a federal judge, make the above comments highly relevant. Tuscon was a tragedy and it can spark a national crisis.

Reacting to the Democrats' massive defeat back in November, veteran Democratic operative Mark Penn took the "crisis" language a step further than Emanuel and Clinton, in saying that President Obama needed a crisis that he could use to reconnect with the American people.

President Clinton reconnected with Oklahoma. And the President right now he seems removed. And it wasn’t until that speech that he really clicked with the American people. Obama needs a similar kind of, yeah.

Now, put all of that thinking together.  Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Mark Penn are not fringe Democratic figures by any stretch.  One is the recently departed White House chief of staff who worked for the current president, one has been around Democratic politics for decades, and one is the secretary of State and runner-up in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, along with being a former senator and former first lady.

President Obama's public approval rating is not strong.  His party recently lost the U.S. House, state legislatures and governorships all over the country, and nearly lost the Senate.  He knows he needs a game changer.

The coming days and weeks will test President Obama as he has never been tested in his life.  He can easily see from the 1995 experience that President Clinton, the last Democratic president to get re-elected in a very long time, used the Oklahoma City bombing to put his critics on the right on the defensive, and to connect with the American people at the same time.  Clinton did not let the crisis of Oklahoma City go to waste.  He was re-elected the following year, but his comeback began with a speech to the nation in a time of tragedy.  The lure of repeating that experience and bringing his presidency back to life is probably mighty in Obama's mind.

But 2011 is not 1995.  In the America of 1995, demagoguery of the sort in which President Clinton engaged in the wake of Oklahoma City was far easier to get away with.  Clinton explicitly blamed conservative talk radio for McVeigh's heinous actions, though we would later learn that McVeigh was no conservative, not by a long shot.  Religiously, he was at most an agnostic.  He was far from a mainstream anything, left or right.  But the Internet was not ubiquitous in those days, for sleuthing and fact-checking.  Tim McVeigh did not leave a YouTube channel spelling out in detail the thoughts that begat his atrocity.  YouTube didn't even exist in 1995, and neither did social media or the blogosphere.  Mark Penn's hopes are not only repugnant and disgusting; the fact is, they're dated.  He's living in the past.