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By Terence Burlij and Katelyn Polantz
As 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: “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, they 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.”
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 toldthe New York Times.
- Helen Thomas, who covered 10 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 takes 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 Review.
- Retirees who worked for the city of Detroit as staff, firefighters and police are on the 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 the first debate Saturday. The two Virginia gubernatorial candidates traded personal attacks and sparred over policy differences.
- No Budget, No Pay, No Problem: The House got right to work on Wednesday debating and passing the No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013.
- Hill’s on the Hill: On Tuesday, Clinton sat for five hours answering questions about the attacks in Benghazi that left four Americans, including an ambassador, dead.
- CA Lawmakers and Guns Control: Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced the introduction of a new assault weapons ban and Rep. Mike Thompson chaired the second hearing of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
- Filibuster Deal Goes Bust: A group of senators decided it was time to bring back the talking filibuster (cue: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and pushed leadership hard to get it done.
- Dudes for Women: A pair of Senators, Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Mike Crapo R-Idaho, reintroduced the Violence Against Women Act this week. The 1994 law was up for a third reauthorization last year but it could not make it through the House.
- John Kerry, Subject of a Hearing by the Committee He Is Currently Chairman of: Yes, John Kerry is going to become the next Secretary of State. So, rather unnaturally, he sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — of which he is the current chairman — and explained why he would be a good Secretary of State. It was a fairly friendly hearing.