Obama's Giffords response came in hours, not days

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will attend a memorial service Wednesday in Tucson for the Arizona shooting victims, capping a rapid and sustained response that started within hours of the weekend attack.

Within hours of the shots being fired Saturday in Tucson, Obama issued a written statement, appeared on camera to deliver another, called Arizona's governor and dispatched the director of the FBI there. By Monday he'd called family members of victims, issued a proclamation and led the nation in a moment of silence.

Throughout, his staff reinforced the message of an engaged leader with photos, videos and Twitter feeds.

The concerted effort stands in contrast to complaints that Obama reacted slowly or awkwardly on earlier occasions in his presidency, such as the 2009 shootings in Fort Hood, Texas, the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jet a year ago, and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last spring.

"It's by design," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "The White House has figured out that they have a potential Oklahoma City moment here. What Obama lost over his first two years was his presence as a unifying figure for the nation. They see this is an opportunity to recoup that."

After anti-government terrorists bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, former President Bill Clinton rallied the country and used the tragedy to criticize toxic politics. In the process, he put his critics on the defensive and helped regain his own political footing after losing control of Congress to Republicans the previous November.

Obama hasn't commented on the current political climate. But he has engaged quickly and forcefully since the shooting, with his actions advertised by the White House communications machinery.

Just hours after the gunman opened fire in a Tucson shopping center Saturday at around noon Washington time, Obama issued his first written statement. "We do not yet have all the answers," he said in the statement released at 3:14 p.m. "What we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society."

Less than two hours later, at 4:46 p.m., Obama delivered another statement, this one before cameras summoned to the White House State Dining Room. He announced that he'd already dispatched FBI Director Bob Mueller to the scene. "We are going to get to the bottom of this," Obama said. "And we're going to get through this."

Within 45 minutes, the White House released photos of Obama calling Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and discussing the shooting with top aides in the White House Situation Room. Among those at the table: incoming White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley. Shortly after that, staff distributed video of the president's statement.

Sunday, Obama issued proclamations ordering flags flown at half staff in honor of those killed and announced a moment of silence for Monday.

Monday, he and first lady Michelle Obama appeared on the south lawn of the White House to lead the moment of silence. He later spoke to reporters during a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy about the bravery of some people who rescued others or subdued the gunman.

"It's important for us to also focus, though, on the extraordinary courage that was shown during the course of these events," Obama said. "Part of what I think that speaks to is the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence."

The rapid response is markedly different from some other flashpoints of his presidency.

When a Muslim Army doctor allegedly opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, Obama didn't comment until the following day. Then he mentioned the tragedy only after first opening a meeting with Indian tribes by giving "a shout out" to one attendee who'd won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Obama later delivered a stirring eulogy at a Fort Hood memorial service.

After a would-be terrorist tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009, a vacationing Obama didn't make a public comment until four days later.

And when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, Obama didn't make a public comment about until nine days later, as oil gushed into the Gulf.

Said Schier: "They've learned."

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