Amid a fiery national debate over race and crime, President Obama is taking a less personal and more conciliatory approach to the George Zimmerman verdict than he did when Trayvon Martin was killed by Zimmerman last year.
Urging calm, Obama offered a carefully balanced response to a Florida jury's acquittal of Zimmerman over the weekend. He urged Americans to find peaceful ways to honor Martin and keep a similar tragedy from happening again.
Obama didn't address whether the Justice Department should get involved--a step being urged by activists who favor federal prosecution of Zimmerman for violating Martin's civil rights. The activists say Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla., followed the 17-year-old because he was African-American. The two got into a fight and Zimmerman fatally shot Martin.
Obama used the Zimmerman-Martin episode to argue for his agenda on gun control. "The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy," the president declared in a statement Sunday. "Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. 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.
"I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this.
"As citizens, that's a job for all of us. That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin."
This was in contrast to Obama's very personal reaction to the lethal shooting of Martin shortly after it occurred in 2012. "...[M]y main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin," said Obama, the nation's first African-American president. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
Obama has been taking his share of criticism. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told Fox News Sunday, "The president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law and order."
It wasn't the first time that Obama has waded into the sensitive area of race relations. In March 2008, when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, drew extensive criticism when he told a Philadelphia radio sports program that his white grandmother was a "typical white person" who had fears about black men.
He was attempting to explain a portion of his speech on race from a few days earlier when he said his white grandmother got nervous when a black man approached her on the street.
told the radio host, "The point I was making was not that Grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn't. But she is a typical white person who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, you know, there's reaction that's been bred in our experiences that don't go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society."
As for Zimmerman, his troubles are far from over, and not only because of the possibility of a civil-rights case from the Justice Department. It's also possible that he will be the target of a civil suit by Trayvon Martin's family for wrongful death or negligence.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.