Thursday, January 20, 2011

Obama's Tucson speech will not 'change the tone' of politics

President Obama's speech at the Tucson memorial Wednesday night garnered praise from both conservatives and liberals, but it's unlikely to change the tone of our political discourse.

For some reason, though, this idea seems to have gained traction.

By not pointing fingers or seeking to score political points, they said, Obama positioned himself well as he readies his State of the Union Address for Jan. 25. That speech will lay out his goals for the year ahead, his first with a divided government.

"The president's speech last night was potentially seismic for him," said Richard Greene, a communications strategist who has written on history's most unforgettable speeches. "Every time the president shows himself in this very warm, very human light, a light that everyone can relate to, he softens up the argument against his agenda."

Whatever good will the president has earned among conservatives will dissipate quickly. As Greg wrote earlier this week, calls for civility are usually short-lived in Washington -- and by historical standards, the incivility of our political discourse isn't as unprecedented as it seems. There are reasons for partisanship -- Republicans and Democrats simply want different things. Should Republicans in Congress decide to cooperate with the president, their tone will have to change -- after, all there's no cooperating with a tyrant -- but that will be because they see some benefit in doing so, not because Obama gave a gracious speech in Tucson.

Likewise, many of the presidents usual antagonists in the conservative media, such as Glenn Beck, praised the president for his speech. But, ultimately, Beck's audience wants to hear baroque conspiracy theories about generations-long liberal schemes to subvert the United States; they're not there to hear him offer balanced, wonky critiques of how the HAMP program has failed to stem the foreclosure crisis. They want to hear him explain why the president is trying to destroy the country. That's why they come to him in the first place.

A few weeks from now, if not a few days or hours, that's what they'll get. A single speech by the president cannot shift the market incentives of the ideological media, nor the underlying structural incentives that create polarization and partisanship in the first place.

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