Obama:"A More Perfect Union" and the Tucson Memorial (tie)
When Barack Obama approached the podium at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, his mission was to beat back one of the most daunting setbacks of his first presidential campaign — the fiery, seemingly anti-American musings of the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the pastor at Obama’s then-church. But instead of throwing his friend under the bus, Obama's 37-minute speech, "A More Perfect Union,” received rave reviews for digging deep into the state of race relations. He was eloquent but also fearless, giving context and nuance in his examination of racial resentment, and even referencing the unconscious prejudices of his white grandmother. Accolades soon poured forth. “I don't recall another speech about race with as little pandering or posturing or shying from awkward points, and as much honest attempt to explain and connect, as this one,” wrote James Fallows on his blog for the Atlantic. In the New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof called the speech “not a sound bite, but a symphony.” And it wasn’t just the pundits who appreciated the address. Poll numbers showed that a majority of those who’d heard or read about it approved, and Obama’s national poll numbers rebounded soon after.
Since taking office, Obama has also given some big, tricky speeches — including his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, his self-effacing yet grateful Nobel speech — but it's fair to say that the stakes were never higher than when he stepped up to a podium in the University of Arizona's basketball arena on January 13, 2011. Five days earlier, 22-year-old Jared Loughner had opened fire at a rally in Tucson for Arizona Representative Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords. The tragedy left six dead and 13 wounded — it would take over six months for Giffords to regain the ability to walk and, slowly, to communicate again. Though Loughner's mental health was later questioned, the early verdict from the left was that rage on the far right was behind the attack. (Even Sarah Palin got some of the blame — her political action committee had placed crosshairs on Giffords' congressional district.) With the national discourse at its most polarized, President Obama delivered a humanistic face to the horror and somehow a message of hope. Mother Jones' David Corn called the speech "undeniably a high moment of his presidency," and Andrew Sullivan waxed poetic that Obama had "broken free of politics tonight and spoke of greater things." Even traditional critics, the National Review and Glenn Beck, praised his performance. "What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other," Obama intoned toward the end of the speech. "That we cannot do." For a while the sentiment stuck. On August 1, when Congresswoman Giffords paid a short visit to Congress, every member stood to applaud her.
Romney: Corporations Are People Too
A heckler at the Iowa State Fair inadvertently prompted the speech of Mitt Romney's career, although as with many of his career highlights, it might not be one he's likely to showcase.
ROMNEY: We have to make sure that the promises we make — and Social Security, Medicaid, adn Medicare — are promises we can keep. And there are various ways of doing that. One is, we could raise taxes on people.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Corporations!
ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend. We can raise taxes on —
AUDIENCE MEMBER: No, they’re not!
ROMNEY: Of course they are. Everything corporations earn also goes to people.
ROMNEY: Where do you think it goes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It goes into their pockets!
ROMNEY:Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets! Human beings, my friend. So number one, you can raise taxes. That’s not the approach that I would take.
There is an ongoing debate about whether corporations should have rights under the law, as in the Citizens United Supreme Court case, but that's not what Mitt Romney was talking about. As Jonathan Chait noted for the New Republic, he was in fact observing that taxes on corporations are borne by actual, real people, and thus are a potential source of government revenue. He was pilloried by Democrats and his Republican rivals for saying so, but it's a perfect example of his hyper-rational nature -- and that makes his off-the-cuff response to a heckler his finest moment behind a podium.