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updated: 1/24/2011 1:42 PM

One man for the people

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Good news: Rep. Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords is preparing to start rehabilitation in a Houston center. It seems the country is feeling a lot better, too. But it's a strange feeling, coming off a national trauma of the attempted assassination of a member of Congress, the murder of a federal judge and the heartbreaking pointless killing of five other decent, innocent Americans, including a 9-year-old girl who had aspirations to one day serve in public office.

President Obama captured the national mood when he said at the memorial services in Tucson, "What we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another." He joined us in our grief and led us into national healing.

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The unthinkable tragedy in Tucson could have further frayed our national fabric of unity. Instead, it became a time when we came together to weep for the nobility of the lost lives, to rejoice for those who survived, and to lift up those who ran to save the lives of others.

We might never know the shooter's real motives, his political leanings or lack thereof. But this was an occasion to re-examine the heated rhetoric that has captured our politics, not because it drove the suspect, but because it gets in the way of what Gifford had devoted her career to doing -- having a direct and two-way conversation with her constituents so that she could air even sharp disagreements in a peaceful manner.

There's no better time than Tuesday's annual State of the Union address for the president to once again call upon us to "look forward, to reflect on the present and the future."

Let's in fact use this moment to take a deep breath and remember how to do politics without dehumanizing each other. We have become darkly negative. Our national political conversation became so toxic that we expected this tragedy to deepen a growing national depression. In fact, this tragic event nearly became a time to blame one another, rather than coming together.

Some leapt to the conclusion that a deeply disturbed youth acted out of political hatred, motivated, they claimed, by one of our most active politicians, Sarah Palin, who placed cross hairs over a map displaying Gabrielle's district.

As happened last summer when the political right accused Shirley Sherrod of racism, the blame-makers had to backtrack -- fast. There was no evidence of anything at work in the shooter but profound mental illness. Perhaps the political left must also backtrack -- fast.

This coming Tuesday, President Obama has the opportunity to transform our national debate from poisonous, shouted interruptions and violently worded accusations to positive, robust, political debate.

There is one constitutional power the president retains that still works when the other powers fail: The power to go over the heads of the lobbyists and politicians and appeal directly to the people.

Only one priority is higher than jobs and economic recovery. The forging of bipartisan agreements to solve our problems is our most urgent priority.

This president has already proved he can make a perceptive bipartisan deal. The liberals are still howling over the president trading Republicans an extension of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, for a one-year extension of benefits for the unemployed.

Will we prolong this sick tennis match of returning criticisms with "bomb throwing" political accusations? I don't believe, after Tucson, that the public has the stomach for it. I know I don't. We hunger for a positive theme, for presidential leadership that will make things work, no matter how many verbal grenades, and legislative roadblocks that "provocation politics" politicians can throw in his path.

A wind is at the president's back, I believe. Obama should choose to use his "bully pulpit." He must go over the heads of the politicians and lobbyists, and take his vision directly to the American people.

Only a single elected official, the president, can speak and lobby on behalf of all the people. The president alone gets the votes of a national constituency. The president can appeal to the bosses of them all, asking they demand their servants find the resolution and cooperation needed to generate jobs and meet our serious national problems.

It is almost on this president's shoulders alone to make democracy work.

Let us start looking for the good news. Let's stop being so down on each other. And let's see if lawmakers will break the pattern of partisan group seating during the State of the Union, and invite a Republican to sit next to a Democrat and vice versa. Now it the time for lawmakers to show they are simply Americans first.

That simple change might lead to other changes that will finally transform the old ways of Washington. Now that would be good for us all.

2011, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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