Barack Obama’s immediate response to the Navy Yard massacre followed a pattern for a president who at crucial moments seems unable to abandon politics and embrace his role as empathizer-in-chief.
Monday morning, as the country was first learning about the shootings at the Naval Seas Systems Command headquarters in Washington D.C., Obama delivered scheduled remarks on the five-year anniversary of the financial crisis.
Obama began with two minutes about the shootings, lauding the military and asking people to pray for the deceased.
But then he quickly pivoted to politics. He rebuked Republicans for everything from the sequester and Obamacare to the debt ceiling. He accused Republicans of wanting “economic chaos” and even took a cheap shot at Mitt Romney.
All this happened as the massacre was still unfolding just blocks from where Obama was speaking. In fact, as the president gave his remarks, the police suspected that multiple shooters were still at large.
On Monday evening, as the death toll continued to mount, Obama was scheduled to join his family for a Latin music concert at the White House.
Unfortunately this wasn’t the first time Obama has failed to put politics aside during times of national tragedy.
Obama did something similar in November 2009 after Nidal Malik Hasan went on a rampage at Fort Hood military base that left 14 innocent people dead and scores wounded.
Before even acknowledging the massacre, Obama opened remarks at an Interior Department event for the Tribal Nations Conference with a series of light-hearted “shout outs” to audience members. Even some Obama supporters criticized the president for his tone-deaf response.
There have been numerous other examples. The day after the massacre in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed in part because of Obama Administration incompetence, Obama jetted off to Las Vegas for a fundraiser with well-heeled gay rights activists.
And while his national security team was glued to a monitor watching a live feed of Seal Team 6 members as they risked their lives in an attempt to take out 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, Obama passed the time by playing spades with his personal assistant and photographer.
Then there were the 12 days Obama waited before vising the Gulf of Mexico after the devastating oil leak there in 2010.
All presidents are called upon in times of tragedy — during and after natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other events that shake the nation — to comfort and reassure the public.
Tragedies call for a president’s grace and calm. And most are able to provide it, as President Bush did after 9-11 and as Ronald Reagan did after the Challenger explosion.
Most politicians instinctively understand that when tragedy strikes, politics must temporarily be set aside. But not President Obama.
Unlike every other president in recent memory, Obama’s instinct is not to comfort a grieving nation or, often, even to acknowledge that a tragedy has occurred. It is to ignore, to dismiss, to politisize and even to trivialize.
Obama often seems not to understand the gravity of what’s going on — and the effect that his words or silence can have during those crucial first hours.
The tragedy for Obama is that he has the eloquence to reassure Americans at times of crisis and tragedy. What he doesn’t have is the empathy to do so.
Empathy is a word Obama deploys regularly to let the American people know that he stands with them. But it is a concept he seems to understand little and employ even less, even when it is needed most.
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is President of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, who served all 8 years of President Ronald Reagan’s Administration.