Obama Speaks on Race With Different Politics From 2008

BY Terence Burlij and Katelyn Polantz  July 22, 2013 at 10:28 AM EST

President Obama speaks about Trayvon Martin and race in the United States on Friday in this televised image.

The Morning LineAs he spoke Friday, President Barack Obama laid out in personal terms his views of race relations in American society, the progress that has been made, and the work still left to do.

But the nation’s first black president dismissed the idea that the challenges still facing the country could be resolved by launching a national conversation about race, which he predicted would “end up being stilted and politicized,” with both sides refusing to move away from their entrenched positions.

Mr. Obama called for a different approach: “On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy,” he said.

By speaking out in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, and saying that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago, the president served as the spark for a new round of dialogue about race in the country. That dialogue started with commentators weighing in on his speech.

Talk-show host Tavis Smiley, who earlier commented that the president’s comments were as weak as “pre-sweetened Kool-Aid,” followed up his criticism during appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“On this issue, you cannot lead from behind. What’s lacking in this moment is moral leadership,” Smiley said. “The country is begging for it, the are craving it. And I disagree with the president respectfully that politicians, elected officials, can’t occupy this space on race. Lincoln did, Truman did, Johnson did, President Obama did. He’s the right person in the right place at the right time, but he has to step into his moment.”

The National Urban League’s Marc Morial responded that the duty for moving the conversation forward must not fall entirely on the president’s shoulders.

“It was great to step to the podium to be in that moment, but then it’s not so much leading but continuing to inspire the conversation so that it doesn’t die on the vine, that it does get life of its own, because this is a conversation, quite honestly, folks, we need to have first,” Morial said on NBC.

The president’s remarks also drew praise from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

“I think that recent events have obviously highlighted the differences that remain. What I got out of the president’s statement, which I thought was very impressive, is that we need to have more conversation in America,” McCain said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

McCain also suggested that “Stand your Ground” laws in Florida and other states “may be something that needs to be reviewed.”

Friday was not the first time the American people have heard Mr. Obama speak about race, but the personal framing for his comments stood apart from previous speeches, such as his address during the 2008 presidential campaign when he came under intense scrutiny over inflammatory statements made by his former pastor.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz noted the different approaches taken by Mr. Obama in his Sunday analysis piece:

The president was slower to speak in the wake of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial last weekend. He issued a written statement but otherwise remained silent as the rest of the country engaged in a sometimes stormy debate about whether the man who killed Martin should have gone free.

Only the president and perhaps the first lady know the full story of how he came to do and say what he did Friday. He told advisers Thursday that he wanted to speak out but that he did not want to give a formal speech, as he had in 2008. He chose a setting that was understated in the extreme — a surprise appearance before unsuspecting reporters on a Friday afternoon.

Obama faced a personal political crisis when he spoke about Wright. That was not the case Friday. But his comments were far more personal than those he made in 2008. Equally important, his words were not an effort to balance the scales or to give equal weight to the views of those who believe the jury was correct to declare Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter and those outraged by the verdict.

He barely mentioned George Zimmerman. He said he would let legal analysts and talking heads deal with the particulars of the case. Instead, his comments were all about Trayvon Martin and the black experience in America. “I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” he said.

Watch Mr. Obama’s remarks here:

And Jeffrey Brown walked through reactions to the speech Friday with Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School, Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and presidential historian Michael Beschloss:

LINE ITEMS

  • Mr. Obama will travel to Illinois and Missouri next week to highlight the economy and a number of his policy proposals. “The president thinks Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball. Instead of talking about how to help the middle class, too many in Congress are trying to score political points, re-fight old battles and trump up phony scandals,” adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the New York Times.

  • Helen Thomas, who covered 12 presidents as the first female reporter in the White House press corps, died Saturday. She was 92.

  • Politico’s Jake Sherman and Seung Min Kim take the pulse of Republicans on the currently stalled immigration reform proposals.

  • Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul shared sushi and similar itineraries on a recent trip to Iowa as their political rivalry for the 2016 presidential race grows, writes Robert Costa for National Journal.

  • Former vice president and Academy Award winner Al Gore endorsed appointed Sen. Brian Schatz to keep his seat in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by the late Daniel Inouye. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will challenge Schatz.

  • A New York House race could be one of the most interesting of 2014, says Katrina Trinko of National Journal. It could mean the Republican incumbent, Rep. Chris Gibson, will face “liberal darling” Sean Eldridge, whose husband, Chris Hughes, co-founded Facebook and publishes the New Republic.

  • Retirees who worked for the city of Detroit as staff, firefighters and police are on edge about their pensions and health benefits as the city progresses through bankruptcy. The city’s leaders appeared on multiple Sunday talk shows this weekend, the Detroit News reports.

  • Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s attorney general, met for their first debate Saturday. The two Virginia gubernatorial candidates traded personal attacks and sparred over policy differences.

You can watch the full debate, moderated by the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, here:


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  • And the Charlottesville Daily Progress reports that despite the donations scandal enveloping the governor’s office, current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell faces little pressure to resign.

  • The Republican National Committee raised $8 million in June, an increase from the same time last year. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paid off its debt from the 2012 election.

  • Presidential campaign statistician Nate Silver is leaving the New York Times for ESPN. The former baseball sabermetrician also will contribute to ABC News during major political elections.

  • Slate Magazine reviews New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn’s memoir, With Patience and Fortitude, with the critique that it spends large chunk of time describing her wedding planning.

  • Evan McMorris-Santoro of Buzzfeed digs into the culture of unpaid interns in Washington and even inside the White House.

NEWSHOUR: #notjustaTVshow

  • Mark Shields and David Brooks both gave thumbs up to Mr. Obama’s speech on race Friday. They also assessed the politics of the Detroit bankruptcy. Watch the segment below:

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