President Obama on Trayvon Martin: The power of the personal

at 11:04 AM ET, 03/23/2012

President Obama’s decision to comment publicly on the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin isn’t terribly surprising. After all, the incident has become a massive national story in the last week.

But, that Obama chose to speak in decidedly personal terms about Martin is surprising — and politically powerful.

“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” said Obama this morning. He added that Martin’s death made him think of his two young daughters; “I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative to investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened,” said Obama.

To be clear: We are not suggesting that Obama spoke about Martin’s death in very personal terms for political gain. Only that when the President does let some emotion show, it tends to be very effective.

Think back to Sandra Fluke — the Georgetown Law School student attacked as a “slut” and a “prostitute” by conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Obama explained that he had placed a call to Fluke because of his two daughters.

“I thought about Malia and Sasha and one of the things that I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues care about, even ones that I may not agree with them on,” Obama said at the time. “And I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.”

Or back to Obama’s speech at the memorial service for those killed in the assassination attempt of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D). Or to Obama’s speech on race in America during the 2008 campaign.

Why is Obama so effective when he goes personal? Two reasons.

First, people like him and his family. Notice that his job approval numbers lag well behind his personal approval numbers. Or that First Lady Michelle Obama’s poll numbers are far better than her husband’s.

When the President talks about national issues in personal terms, he reminds people of what they like most about him: that he appears to be a good husband and a good father.

Second, the biggest knock on Obama as a politician is that he can seem cold and aloof, removed from the everyday struggles of average Americans. Even for those who love his ability to give big speeches and inspire, they often have struggled to find a moment of genuine connection with the President.

By bringing matters like the Trayvon Martin case or the Sandra Fluke episode all the way down to a family level, President Obama is letting the American people in on the fact that he is, at root, just like them. And that’s very powerful stuff in the political space.

All of that is not to say that the President is purposely seeking political profit from Trayvon Martin or Gabrielle Giffords. But, all of these events happen in the context of a presidential race and, therefore, it’s impossible to detach political implications from them.

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