Obama Speaks Out on Trayvon Martin: A Personal Appeal with Political Risk

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Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

President Barack Obama answers a reporter's question about the death of Trayvon Martin, March 23, 2012, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

“If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” President Obama said Friday, March 23, regarding the recent killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot last month in Florida by a neighborhood-watch volunteer who has not been charged with a crime. “I think [Martin’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we will get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

In a flash, by answering an unplanned question shouted during an unrelated event, Obama had erased the careful distance from the case that his aides have maintained for days. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Trayvon Martin’s family,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on March 19. “But obviously, we’re not going to wade into a local law-enforcement matter. I would refer you to the Justice Department and local law enforcement at this point.”

Obama’s press handlers have discouraged the President from getting involved in local issues. It took them weeks to deal with the fallout from his comments on Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ run-in with local law enforcement in 2009. In 2010, Obama’s comments supporting the concept of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan undercut weeks of Democratic messaging on the economy before the midterm elections.

But on Friday, Obama did it again, deliberately. The Martin case has laid bare racial tensions nationwide. And in speaking out, the President was taking real political risk.

Racial suspicion and bigotry are likely to play at least as big a role in the 2012 election as they did in 2008, when Obama generally tried to avoid any rhetorical or policy actions that could be portrayed by his opponents as favoring one group over another. This was exactly the hornet’s nest that Obama kicked in 2009 when he said Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

In September 2008, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 37% of prospective voters said race would be a factor in their vote. “Of the 8% of Democrats who told CNN they plan to vote for Obama’s GOP rival, Senator John McCain, half said race was a factor,” CNN reported at the time. Obama’s re-election is expected to be a much closer race, and any alienation of working-class white voters uncomfortable with the controversy over Martin’s death could hurt him.

The race issue aside, there is a long history of Presidents’ causing trouble by weighing in on local cases, as Swampland alumna Karen Tumulty points out. After Richard Nixon declared serial-killer ringleader Charles Manson “guilty” before a jury verdict was issued, Manson held up a newspaper headline in court that read, “Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares.”

At the same time, there are potential political benefits in Florida of the President’s becoming involved in the case. The first is the simplest one: a public showing of empathy is an obvious example of presidential leadership. Obama has repeatedly shown a real talent for this part of the job. His memorial speech to the people who died during the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords remains one of the high points of his rocky tenure in the White House.

Second, the Obama campaign’s plans to win the Sunshine State depend heavily on registering and turning out large numbers of black voters, who have been appearing in large numbers in rallies to demand the arrest of Martin’s killer.

Finally, Obama’s comments allow him to avoid looking as if he were dodging the issue out of political caution.  Outrage over law enforcement’s handling of the case continues to grow, and hearings in both the Florida state legislature and the U.S. Congress are expected in coming days. It will likely take weeks for the investigation into the killing to run its course. By speaking out Friday after a reporter shouted a question in the Rose Garden, the President left no doubt about his concern, political risks or not.