Obama goes from scolder in Washington to comforter in Boston

In Washington, President Obama is locked in a battle with many voices in Congress over gun control, but at a moment of national tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the president stands alone.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
President Obama speaks at an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the bombing at the Boston Marathon at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on Thursday.

A day after he stood in the White House Rose Garden as a frustrated scolder-in-chief, President Obama was in Boston Thursday assuming the role of comforter-in-chief at a prayer service for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

In both cases, Mr. Obama was acting to address, though in very different ways, horrendous acts of violence that stunned the country.

On Wednesday afternoon, with Gabrielle Giffords and Sandy Hook families at his side, the president cast “shame” on the US Senate for rejecting a bipartisan plan for tighter background checks on gun purchases. Not 24 hours later, he was providing balm to the victims of an “act of terror” and to a city struck in its heart.

In just a day, the president changed out of the political cloak of irate reaction to Congress to the higher m antle of national leadership in times of grief. As Obama hugged families and visited the bedsides of the recovering, it only underscored how a presidential presence that meant so little one day in Washington could mean everything in Boston the next. 

It was a change in roles reminiscent of one made by President Clinton in 1996, when the Oklahoma City bombing – at that time, the largest act of terror to strike the US – allowed a president caught up in daily political harangues with Congress to step out from Washington and comfort a nation with what would become his trademark empathy.

In the Rose Garden, Obama was introduced by Mark Barden, who lost his son, Daniel, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14. With the president’s hand on his shoulder, Mr. Barden said the Sandy Hook families were “disappointed” by the Senate votes but “not defeated,” promising continued effort for gun safety legislation.

“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” Obama said.

In Boston, the president was accompanied by Michelle Obama, and the tone was much more one of comfort and of faith in the resilience of Boston and all Americans in the face of tragedy.

Comparing the nation to the Boston Marathon runner seen on videotape by millions as he was knocked off his feet by the first of two blasts, Obama said, “We may be momentarily knocked off our feet. But we’ll pick ourselves up. We will keep going. We will finish the race.”

A devoted sports fan, Obama is said to have penned much of Thursday’s remarks himself.

He went on to pledge, as he had just hours after the bombings, that those responsible will be found and brought to justice. “But more than that," he added. "our fidelity to our way of life, to our free and open society, will only grow stronger.”

But with the investigation into the marathon bombings turning up clues – including photos of individuals of interest and painstaking assembly of bomb parts pointing to unsophisticated devices built to kill and maim – that keep alive the theory that the attack could have been the work of domestic extremists, more attention is being paid to past domestic “acts of terror.”

Two are getting attention more than others: the 1996 Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Summer Olympics and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal government building.

The Oklahoma City bombing, in particular, became embroiled in the prevailing political storms, as an embattled Mr. Clinton addressed the deadly act of an antigovernment terrorist in a way that some Republicans charged used the tragedy for political gain.

Four days after the bombing, Clinton traveled to Oklahoma City and delivered words that both comforted and reassured his audience and the country. “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything,” he told his audience, noting that America was with them. He then told the nation, “I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards.”

But Clinton was also castigated by some critics for using the Oklahoma City bombing to single out some of his harshest detractors for the way that, in his view, their fiery rhetoric appeared to condone violence.

“We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other,” Clinton said. “They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”

By contrast, Obama did not accuse anyone of encouraging gun violence in his Rose Garden comments, but he did suggest that political expediency was the only motivation that could explain the Senate’s rejection of what he called a “common sense” measure expanding background checks. And he accused opponents of the bill of "lying" about what it would and wouldn't do. 

In rebuffing the president, some opponents of additional gun safety measures have accused Obama of using the Sandy Hook tragedy for political gain. Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky charged the president with employing the Sandy Hook families that have lobbied members of Congress as “props” in his quest for more government regulation.

It has not been a satisfying or particularly inspiring debate on either side.

Away from Washington, Obama spent time Thursday with families of the victims of Monday’s bombings. He and Michelle visited recovering patients in several Boston hospitals, and the president stopped in to thank marathon volunteers and first-responders who have been credited with quick action that saved many lives.

It was a day for presidential comforting, the frustrations of Washington could be put off to another day.

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