One of the most important moments in Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was his speech on race in America in the midst of the controversy over his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

It was an intensely human moment, in which Obama married his deep personal experience with his highly rational analysis in a presentation that touched Americans deeply.

Since then, some would argue, President Obama has appeared to be remote and detached from average Americans, and has allowed himself to be drawn, perhaps too deeply, into the poisonous partisan climate that is politics in America today.

Rather than bringing a post-partisan era of cooperation, his Administration has become embroiled in even deeper polarization.

Tonight in Tucson, he has a new opportunity to erase the detachment and partisanship and “establish a new bond with the American people,” in the words of a analysis this morning.

The hope I expressed in a post to this blog on Monday that we might find an increase in civility and respect in our national dialogue in the wake to the Tucson tragedy has been trampled by an onslaught of ugly finger-pointing in partisan cable TV shows and blogs. But I suspect most Americans are sick of this, and yearn for a bold leader to stand up and say, “Enough!”

The ability to seize such a moment is a hallmark of a great leader. The Bloomberg piece mentions several memorable public examples.

One of my favorites was a key moment in Aetna CEO Jack Rowe’s early days as a new leader taking over a company that had been mired in factional culture wars inside the company and an ugly public battle between HMOs and America’s physicians. A physician himself and an outsider to Aetna, Dr. Rowe took it upon himself to seek peace both within and without.

At a town hall meeting in company headquarters in which Dr. Rowe had been trying to explain his approach, one employee rose and asked, “What are you really trying to do here, Jack?” Dr. Rowe paused only a moment before he replied, “Jeannie, it’s all about restoring the pride.” With that, the audience rose as one in a standing ovation, not for Jack, but for the sense of common purpose he had touched in all their hearts.

Here’s hoping for such a moment of national common purpose in response to the president’s message tonight.

Roger Bolton
SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting