updated 1/14/2011 10:09:12 AM ET 2011-01-14T15:09:12

President Barack Obama's consoling, sermon-like speech at a service for the victims of the Arizona shooting rampage steered clear of politics, yet it may have given him one of the biggest political boosts since he took office two years ago.

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Obama's speech earned compliments from even some of his severest conservative critics, who used such words as "stunning" and "remarkable" to describe it.

The praise from his opponents is bound to fade, but the speech could bolster Obama's standing as a leader as he starts to deal with newly empowered Republicans in Congress and lays out his plans for the year in the State of the Union address at the end of the month.

Video: Gregory: Obama’s speech ‘seized’ the moment (on this page)

The president spoke with fondness and gentleness of the victims — 6 dead, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and the 14 wounded in the attack on a U.S. congresswoman, who was critically injured with a bullet wound through her brain.

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Obama gave the address on the fourth day after the attack and in the midst of swirling recriminations. Liberals were blaming the assault on the poisonous political atmosphere, which they blamed on conservatives. Conservatives were hotly denying the charge, countering that the public was naturally in an uproar over Obama's policies and leadership.

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The president's approval ratings already were on the rise after what he called a "shellacking" in the November congressional elections, and the Arizona tragedy could prove a turning point for Obama at the halfway mark in his term.

First Thoughts: Obama recaptures his 2004 voice

Comparisons to Oklahoma City bombing
The current reality is uncannily similar to what confronted former President Bill Clinton after Democrats were ravaged at the polls in 1994. Shortly afterward a bomb destroyed the federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people. Clinton traveled there and delivered a eulogy that won much praise.

Clinton's approval ratings jumped several points after that speech from numbers akin to Obama's after the November vote. In Clinton's case, his approval fell again in the months that followed, but he nevertheless managed to win re-election two years later.

So far, there have been no poll results after Obama's Tucson speech, but his situation is somewhat better. His numbers were already on the rise after a strong of legislative successes and accommodations with Republicans in the final meeting of Congress late last year. The latest Associated Press-GFK poll put the president's approval at 53 percent. It was 47 percent immediately after the November election.

The Tucson shooting stunned Americans and forced politicians to re-examine the hard-charging, partisan tactics expected with Republicans back in control of the House of Representatives and at a lesser numerical disadvantage in the Senate. House Republicans, for example, have postponed voting on a measure to repeal Obama's health care overhaul legislation, most of which has yet to go into effect.

Kind words from many Republicans
Obama's words provoked unaccustomed kind words from the opposition.

Charles Krauthammer, a hard-edged Obama critic in his newspaper column and as a Fox News analyst, said Obama's speech "was a remarkable display of oratory and oratorical skill in terms of tone and content."

Peggy Noonan, the storied speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan, called it "large spirited. And it spoke from a good height about how this whole debate about civil discourse didn't get us to that shooting."

Glenn Beck, who rails against Obama nightly on Fox News, called the remarks "probably the best speech he's ever given."

Video: Tucson tragedy becomes 'teachable moment' (on this page)

But reaction from conservatives was not all bouquets.

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On Michelle Malkin's blog, for example, the comment was harsh:

"Speeches and leadership are not the same thing.

"Obama delivered one tonight, but failed at the other over the past three days as Pima County Sheriff Dupnik, Democrat Party leaders, and media abettors poisoned the public square with the very vitriol the president now condemns.

"Right speech. Too late. Awful, awful venue."

Sheriff Dupnik is the top county law enforcement officer in the county that surrounds Tucson. He has been highly critical of right-wing rhetoric and Arizona's lax gun laws that, he said, had turned the city into a latter-day Tombstone, Arizona, the Wild West haven for gunfighters.

Lasting effect?
As to the venue, Malkin and others complained loudly about the wild applause that regularly interrupted Obama. The critics said that was disrespectful to the victims of the tragedy.

Video: Lawmakers back at work after shooting tragedy

At the University of Denver, political scientist Seth Masket said it would have been hard for any but the most extreme opponent to be critical of Obama, given "the quality of the speech" and the reason for its delivery. But doubted it would have a lasting effect on the tone of American political dialogue or Obama's standing with the public.

"The economy and the wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) will have a far greater impact," he said, calling the immediate reactions to Obama and the Tucson tragedy "a temporary thing. A crisis rally effect where people tend to turn president" for direction in the short run.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gregory: Obama’s speech ‘seized’ the moment

  1. Transcript of: Gregory: Obama’s speech ‘seized’ the moment

    GEIST: Could be the end of the road . NBC 's Chuck Todd , thank you very much . David Gregory is moderator of " Meet The Press ." David , good morning.

    DAVID GREGORY reporting: Hey, Willie.

    GEIST: President Obama had a difficult task the other night in Tucson of comforting the people of that city, and indeed of the country. But also he tried to calm the political debate . How did he do on both counts, David ?

    GREGORY: Well, I think by all accounts he did very well. You hear compliments for him on both the left and the right, everyone across the political spectrum . And Chuck alluded to it. I mean, he did two things, which is to give voice to what people around the country have been feeling. This is something that affects people and families whether you knew the victims or not very deeply. And second, I think he took the country to a place that it didn't even know that it needed to go, talking about words that heal, not words that wound. Talking about being as big as this moment requires in our political life , in our political discourse around the country. So I think it was a moment that all agreed that he seized and kind of charts a path for where Washington and frankly the rest of the country can go.

    GEIST: David , I think we all agree civility's a worthy goal, but as Chuck just said in his piece it is back to business. The Republican House takes up the repeal of President Obama 's signature health care reform law. Why should this time be any different? Why will the conversation change?

    GREGORY: Look, I -- you know, cynicism is warranted, this is Washington after all. I think Washington can do a great job elevating moments like this to become a national moment of reflection, but Washington is also really capable of wasting these moments as well. If there's some hope, as it were, in the middle of a time here and now leading up to the State of the Union address where this spirit can be tapped into again, as Chuck alluded to, the president will do it again in the State of the Union and talk that way. We are about to have another health care debate. It doesn't have to be the way it was. There are even moves by Senator Tom Udall of Colorado during the State of the Union to have both parties sit together instead of sitting apart. I mean, these are small gestures, but ultimately it's about how the debate moves forward. We're going to have big debates about the role of government in our lives, government spending, health care and the like. It's a question of do people really want to make that turn?

    GEIST: And of course, David , Sarah Palin has been right in the middle of this conversation, even linked by some of her critics to the shooting because of some of her rhetoric. There was, of course, no evidence for that at all. Now getting some criticism for that Facebook statement she put out on the same day of the memorial. What is the long-term impact, David , on her political brand?

    GREGORY: You know, it's so difficult to gauge that because we don't know where she's headed politically other than being a really big political star, really. You know, everybody talks in terms of a potential run for the presidency for her. We just don't know if that's where she's headed. We just know at the moment she has huge political impact. I think the criticism of Sarah Palin would be that she made it more about her than it needed to be. That she was speaking to perhaps a narrow band of supporters who wanted to settle scores here after being linked to all of this in a way that was not supported by any evidence. That she didn't take an opportunity to go bigger as the president did and talk about this political moment that we're in independent of what happened in Tucson in terms of how we talk to one another. So I think that's a criticism that will carry with her. And, look, she has carried for a long time this ability -- or this question about whether she can step outside that narrow band of supporters and reach a wider audience.

    GEIST: And, David , I imagine these will be among the topics of conversation on Sunday's " Meet the Press ."

    GREGORY: No question about it, Willie . We have a special roundtable dedicated to these questions about our political discourse moving forward. Martin Luther King 's birthday. Al Sharpton will join our roundtable, Tim Shriver as well. But we'll begin with the program, with the debate about Washington , the debate over gun control. Senators Schumer and Coburn join me for that discussion.

    GEIST: All right, David Gregory , thanks so much.


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