As Americans digest the outcome of the Trayvon Martin murder case – a “not guilty” verdict for shooter George Zimmerman – some are also looking back to the role that President Obama’s early remarks played in shaping public sentiment about the event.
Mr. Obama, who for the most part has maintained painstaking caution on topics of race, waded early and with conviction into the national dialogue on the killing.
“When I think about this boy,” he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden after the crime was committed but before Mr. Zimmerman was charged, “I think about my own kids.” If he had a son, Obama said, he would look like Trayvon.
But now, in the wake of a jury decision that has generated rage in some corners and relief in others, the president has dialed back his language, urging calm reflection of how we can all do more to facilitate dialogue on these complicated issues – to “widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities,” as he said in a statement released Sunday.
“I know this case has elicited strong passions,” Obama said in his paragraph-long comment. “And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” The only mention of something policy-oriented was his plea to “ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis.”
For this tonal pivot – politically necessary, some say, even responsible – he is garnering some criticism, from conservatives especially. They say that he shouldn’t have engaged in the issue from the get-go, that he elevated tensions and turned a local legal matter into a divisive national debate.
"President Obama politicized this at the beginning of it, I believe, unfortunately, by injecting himself into it," said Karl Rove, former political adviser to President George W. Bush.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, struck a similar theme, saying the president turned the Florida killing "into a political issue." Rove and King both spoke on “Fox News Sunday.”
Of course the same could be said of the president’s critics. Who can claim with validity that Obama was really a key driver of the gavel-to-gavel coverage of this trial?
More generally, should the nation’s first black president not be expected to remark on a matter that has sparked a new conversation about race and justice in America?
It’s worth noting that Obama has rarely and reluctantly stepped directly into topical matters of race, and he has done so, historically, at his own political peril. In Philadelphia, during his 2008 campaign, Obama gave a heartfelt, and largely well-received, treatise on race as a response to growing concerns about his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama’s candidacy in the presidential primary race was in jeopardy at the time.
Less successfully, Obama suggested in 2009 that police “acted stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, outside his home in Cambridge, Mass. That led to an awkward gathering at the White House – over beers, no less – between Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Professor Gates, and the officer who arrested him.
Writing on CNN’s website, Abigail Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute suggests that Obama’s initial statements about Trayvon reflect a mistake in judgment. The president, she says, must distinguish himself from others fanning tensions. And he knows how to do so, she adds.
“People such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson see white racism as endemic and elevate what's wrong with America over all that is remarkably right,” Ms. Thernstrom says. “In his 2008 Philadelphia speech, Obama separated himself from activists of their ilk: the very people who today still hope to punish George Zimmerman. On the campaign trail, Obama understood the sensibilities of the American people on these questions; in office, Obama seems to have lost that touch.”
But Obama has said nothing more since that restrained Sunday statement, and his silence speaks volumes – especially as the Justice Department continues its own investigation of the case.
“I don’t have anything to add,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday when pressed to answer if Obama felt justice was served in the Zimmerman trial.
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and friend of the president, suggests that Obama’s statement Sunday might be the last we hear from him on the matter.
"Barack Obama is a lawyer and I think his legal sense is that he should do nothing that would interrupt or disrupt any future matters involving George Zimmerman," Professor Ogletree told the Los Angeles Times.
Does that mean Obama learned a lesson from his earlier candor? Or instead, does the brevity and tone of his most recent remark more simply serve to guide an American public to a place of more peaceful discourse? A conversation guided, perhaps, by their neighbors and friends and rooted in their communities, rather than steered by politicians and television personalities.