Here it is in full:
"The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin."
The statement has been called "unusual,"as it's rare for a president to weigh in on the verdict of a murder trial. It is also sure to prompt complaints from both sides—from the left, which might feel his comment that "a jury has spoken" does not go far enough (the NAACP is petitioning the U.S. Justice Department to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman) and from the right, which could very well see his implied call for better gun control as an attempt to politicize an emotional event.
Obama's earlier comments on the Martin tragedy—the president said in 2012 "If I had a son he'd look like Trayvon Martin"—have been viewed by conservatives as politicizing the event, but were late in coming in the eyes of some black leaders.
As a result, making any statement on the Trayvon Martin verdict was a minefield for the president. To say nothing about the decision, especially given the highly emotional reaction, would seem out of touch and an act of avoidance. But doing so was also bound to catch criticism from many sides.
While caution was needed in any remarks he might make, the president's statement Sunday shouldn't be primarily judged for how much it played to the right or the left, however, or whether it gave legitimacy to one point of view or another. First and foremost, he should be judged for how well his words did the job of leading a country at an unsettling moment of overwhelming emotion—encouraging calm, moving our perspectives forward and redirecting angry reactions into purposeful good.
Obama's statement did all of these things. He recognized the passions the verdict elicited, but reminded people that "we are a nation of laws" and should respect "the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son." Rather than attempting to cast blame or raise questions about the verdict, he suggested people instead examine whether they can do more "to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities."
And even though, as the Post's Jonathan Capehart noted, the president will no doubt "catch hell" for doing so, Obama gave people looking for a way to do something to honor Trayvon Martin an idea for where to direct their energy—the prevention of gun violence. That's not a political act. It's the kind of positive redirection at a moment of raw emotion that is the job of any leader.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.