“I am very sad about the children who lost their lives,” wrote Taejah Goode, a 10-year-old from Georgia who attended Wednesday’s event. “So, I thought I would write to you to STOP gun violence.”
Obama also noted that he has hung a painting made by Grace McDonnell, a 7-year-old girl who was among those killed at Newtown, in his private study at the White House.
“Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace and I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her,” Obama said, adding that it reminds him that “we must act now . . . for all the Americans who are counting on us to keep them safe from harm.”
The prominence of children in Obama’s presentation prompted an immediate backlash from some conservatives. The right-leaning Drudge Report Web site ran a photo of Obama high-fiving one of the children gathered at the White House along with the headline “Let’s Play Take the Guns.”
The child-focused news conference also came one day after the National Rifle Association invoked the president’s daughters in a provocative Web video, a move that White House press secretary Jay Carney criticized as “repugnant and cowardly.”
“Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in a political fight,” Carney said in a statement Wednesday. Some Democrats, including former House Democratic Caucus chairman John Larson (Conn.), called for the online spot to be taken down immediately; NRA President David Keene stood by the ad and said it “wasn’t about [Obama’s] daughters. It was about elites.”
The focus on children in the political arena is inevitable in the wake of a shooting tragedy that took place at an elementary school, several communications experts said. But they said there are key distinctions between the NRA ad and the White House’s use of children onstage — as well as the deployment of children by previous presidents and political candidates.
“Presidents always use props,” said George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who studies presidential leadership and public opinion. “Children are a little more emotional, I suppose. But it is children who’re getting slaughtered in these schools, so who would you bring in if you wanted to talk about children being slaughtered in schools?”
Whereas the White House event focused on children from across the country who had written letters to Obama, the NRA ad breached the “zone of privacy” usually given to the president’s children, said Brendan J. Doherty, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.”