Obama, top Democrats lay low as Martin story shifts

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Top Democrats — including President Barack Obama’s re-election team — are now keeping their distance from the Trayvon Martin uproar, as each day reveals more facts about the teen’s slaying.

“As more facts come out, it’s more confusing for folks,” Sharon Gilpin, a Democratic political consultant, told The Daily Caller.

“There was a pretty intense rush to judgment … [but] it is important to get all your facts before you cement your feet in the sidewalk,” said Gilpin, who has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns and ballot initiatives.

“As tragic as this death is, there obviously is another side to the story,” former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis told TheDC. “We would all do well to wait for the facts to emerge.”

At today’s White House press conference, spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the only question about the controversy. He was asked about Obama’s response to Rep. Bobby Rush appearing on the House floor wearing a hoodie. Rush represents an African-American district in Obama’s hometown of Chicago.

“I haven’t discussed that with him,” Carney said, six days after the president amplified a media firestorm by using a Rose Garden event to announced that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” (RELATED: Full coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting)

After Carney dismissed the question, the reporters focused on Obama’s renewed — and routine — demand for higher taxes on oil companies.


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Although the Congressional Black Caucus and numerous African-American activists, including MSNBC’s Al Sharpton and CNN’s Roland Martin, have highlighted the shooting and portrayed Martin as a likely victim of racism, many other Democrats have kept a low profile.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, for example, released a Mar. 21 statement that merely applauded a federal investigation into the Florida shooting. The Democrats’ Senate leader, Sen. Harry Reid, used a March 23 statement to focus his comments on the federal investigation as well.

The White House has kept its distance from the tangled Trayvon Martin dispute since March 23 when the president surprised Washington by using a Rose Garden event to wade into the controversy.

Besides an excerpt from his Rose Garden remarks, the campaign’s web site was mostly silent on Martin’s death. On Wednesday, that single excerpt showed little sign of traffic — it had collected only seven “likes,” two tweets, and no comments.

Obama’s campaign officials have mostly stayed away from the dispute as well, and when they do get involved, they have downplayed Obama’s intervention, avoided reference to race, and instead lashed out at GOP leaders.

“The president took a question the other day in the Rose Garden and he spoke from the heart and empathizing with parents who lost a son,” Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said in a Mar. 28 CNN interview.

“I think it is abysmal, despicable, that people like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are trying to make this a divisive issue,” she said, only five days after the president highlighted the case as an issue that “all parents” should address.

“Nobody doubts the president’s commitment to bringing this country together,” she said defensively, while demanding that Gingrich and Santorum “should watch their own words.”

The president’s political adviser, David Plouffe, used the same aggressive approach in comments Mar. 25.

The GOP leaders’ comments “were really hard to stomach, really, and I guess trying to appeal to people’s worst instincts. … I don’t think there’s very many people in America that would share that reaction,” he said on CNN’s Sunday talk-show.

Media accounts of leaked police reports over the last few days have upended initial claims about the Feb. 26 shooting.

The reports and facts show that the shooter was George Zimmerman, a mixed race registered Democrat and a self-fashioned neighborhood watch captain.

Zimmerman alleged that Martin knocked him to the ground and broke his nose, according to media reports based on leaks from inside the local police department.

Martin was 17 years old, and was taller and heavier than he is portrayed in the widely published pictures that were taken when he was aged 14. Contrary to the images initially used by the national media, the police report shows he was taller than Zimmerman, while the shooter had a substantial weight advantage over the youth.

News reports say Martin was quizzed by school officials about possible theft, and was spending time at his father’s house following a suspension for vandalism.

The rush to take sides in an evolving case has opened some Democratic-aligned advocates — such as Al Sharpton, a MSNBC host and political activist — to criticism from other activists, including several African-American leaders, such as C.L. Bryant, T. Willard Fair and Alveda King.

“I am stunned that [Al] Sharpton and others want to have it both ways: they say they want to get to the bottom of what happened, and then attack any information about the encounter as a leak and character assassination,” said Davis, a former Democratic representative from an African-American district in Alabama.

“Both parties have to worry about subgroups” that can skew the public’s view of the party in an election-year that will be decided by independent-votes and economic issues, Gilpin said. “I certainly understand the motivation” of getting the party’s base excited, said Gilpin. Obama has to concentrate on economic issues because African-Americans “are as concerned about the jobs issues as much as anyone else,” she said.

“There is no upside for anyone to make race an issue,” she added.

However, the increasingly nuanced and detailed accounts of the killing — which is decried by every significant actor, both Democrat and Republican — also clash with Obama’s initial portrayal of the shooting as a race-related incident.

“This is a tragedy,” Obama said March 23. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”

President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, are different from Martin in almost every measurable capacity, including their economic and educational privilege. The one area of similarity is their African-American heritage, which Obama emphasized in asserting that Trayvon would “look like” him were he to have a son.

“I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this [Martin killing] happen,” Obama said, adding “that means [we] examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.”

Davis didn’t fault Obama’s response. “He reacted as an African-American man; he expressed the sentiments that every single black I have encountered felt last week, including those in my family,” said Davis.

“Whether a president should have indulged those sentiments is a question I will let others judge.”

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