By Amie Parnes - 03/23/12 09:55 PM EDT
President Obama called Friday for a thorough investigation into the killing of a black teenager in Florida, making a rare personal intervention into a racially charged issue that has captivated the nation.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said in unusually personal remarks after a reporter asked a question about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Obama spoke on the topic after announcing his nominee for president of the World Bank. It was a notable moment for the president, who has walked a fine line when it comes to race. He hadn't previously commented on the controversy surrounding Martin, who was unarmed when he was killed last month by Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman said he was acting in self-defense.
After the Rose Garden announcement, Obama seized the opportunity to comment on the issue by answering a question shouted by a reporter, questions he frequently ignores.
White House aides and others who know Obama well say the president had been following the case since it made national headlines about a week ago and felt a personal connection to the incident.
“You often don’t hear him speak about this sort of thing, it’s just not something he does all the time, but it’s obvious that it was very personal to him,” said one White House official. “And he spoke about it in a very personal way, in a way no one else could even imagine saying. Even I got a little emotional hearing him talk about it.”
Obama has been cautious about handling racial issues, particularly since criticizing police in 2009 for arresting Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates provoked an uproar.
Obama in a press conference at the time opined that a white Massachusetts police officer acted “stupidly” when he arrested Gates. Those remarks later led to the first "beer summit" at the White House with Gates and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley.
Obama called the Gates episode a "teachable moment."
On Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama “clearly had some thoughts” about the Martin case “as a parent,” that he wanted to share. But Carney said he didn’t want to “psychoanalyze” Obama’s motives for taking the question about the case.
“Obviously he is aware of it, was aware of it, and has thought about it,” Carney said.
But a former senior administration official familiar with Obama’s thinking said the case is a personal one for the president.
"For the president, given some of the challenges that he has faced, it hits home and it's something he identifies with,” the former senior administration official said. “Clearly, he has a personal connection to this story.
"It’s something that has also really struck a chord with the nation, and it’s something that Obama sees that is not going right, something that needs fixing," the former administration official said.
The killing of the teenager — who was walking back to his father’s house from a convenience store — has sparked protests around the country and a nationwide debate over race.
“When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local, to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened,” the president said Friday.
“Obviously this is a tragedy; I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” he said. “I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen?"
This week, nearly a month after the shooting, the Department of Justice stepped in to investigate the matter. As a result, Obama was cautious about discussing the case.
“I’m the head of the executive branch, and the attorney general reports to me,” Obama said. “So I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.”
As Obama spoke, coincidentally, Attorney General Eric Holder was meeting with some African-American clergy members, an administration official said. But the meeting had been scheduled before the shooting took place last month in Florida. It was unclear to what extent the Martin shootings may have been discussed at the meeting.
Martin was killed on Feb. 26 by Zimmerman, and police chose to not file charges at the time. Martin was carrying only Skittles candies and a can of iced tea when he was shot.
Just prior to the shooting, Zimmerman called 911 to report what he said was suspicious behavior on by Martin. Zimmerman then began to follow Martin, despite the emergency dispatcher advising him not to do so.
Police questioned Zimmerman but did not arrest him. A Florida state law known as the "stand your ground" law permits citizens to use deadly force when acting in self-defense, but a grand jury is has since been called to investigate the incident.
Martin’s death has provoked protests and intense media focus, and on Monday students across Florida held rallies calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. On Wednesday protesters in New York City held a “million hoodie march” in honor of the teen, whom many believe was targeted because of his skin color and clothing.
After the public outcry, the Sanford, Fla., chief of police announced Thursday he would temporarily step down.
While Obama’s previous handling of racial issues, particularly his 2009 comments in the Gates incident, has been questioned, observers say his remarks on the Martin case were much more artful.
“He was very strategic and deliberate in the words that he used,” said April Ryan, a White House reporter for American Urban Radio Networks. “He made sound statements. He got personal with his remarks without even getting into racial profiling. He stayed clear of that.”
“I thought [Obama’s] remarks were perfectly pitched,” added Eddie Glaude, a professor or religion and African-American studies at Princeton University. “On the one hand, given his position as president and the investigation that the Justice Department is conducting, he had to be very careful. Yet even in his carefulness, he spoke to the emotion at the heart of this case, and to the requirement that justice be done.”
Glaude said the president's personal remarks resulted in a “moment of identification with a community that has a long, painful history of losing its babies.”
“He was expressing identification with this experience of loss,” Glaude said.
— Niall Stanage and Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.