SAN BERNADINO, Calif. — President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama emerged from nearly three hours of meetings Friday night with families of the 14 people killed in an attack on a county office building here and spoke of the emotional pain that follows such mass shootings — and the strength of the families.
“It was so moving for Michelle a myself in part because it was so representative of the country,” Obama said of the families he met. “You had people from every background and faith. ... Some described loved ones who had come to this country as immigrants.” Other spoke of relatives who had lived here “for their whole lives.”
The visit marked the ninth time that Obama has visited a city struck by a mass shooting to comfort family members still reeling from an inconsolable loss. This time the president and first lady met at a local high school with the families of all 14 victims.
Obama spoke of the need to remain vigilant regarding the terror threat, but also of the decency shown by the country and the families in the face of tragedy.
“We have to remind ourselves of the overwhelming good that exists out there,” he said after meeting with the families. “Despite the pain and the heartache that they’re feeling, they could not have been more inspiring.”
The president and first lady moved from family to family gathered in small clusters in the school’s library. They also spoke briefly with police and emergency personnel who responded to the shooting.
“Many were interested in how we can prevent shootings like this from happening in the future,” Obama said of the families.
“It was a reminder of what’s good in this country,” he said. “I hope that’s something that gives all Americans a sense of pride and a sense of hope.”
The San Bernardino attack was both a mass shooting and act of terrorism. Like earlier attacks, it has prompted calls from some quarters for gun control legislation. And it has reminded Americans of the country’s vulnerability, particularly to lone wolf terror attacks carried out by individuals who act on their own and not on direct orders from a terror group.
Coming a month after the deadly attacks in Paris carried out by the Islamic State, the shootings here have increased pressure on Obama to intensify the military campaign against the group in Iraq and Syria. Obama described efforts to hit the Islamic State earlier in the day at his year-end press conference. “Squeezing ISIL’s heart at its core in Syria and Iraq will make it harder for them to pump their terror and propaganda to the rest of the world,” Obama said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
In San Bernardino, though, Obama’s focus was on grieving families rather than new gun measures or overseas wars. This visit, like the president’s previous trip in October to Roseburg Ore., where nine people were killed, was brief and low key.
The president and first lady descended from Air Force One at San Bernardino International Airport around 8 p.m., and spent a few minutes with mayor and county supervisor on the tarmac.
A large crowd of San Bernardino residents, bundled in jackets and sweatshirts, lined the sidewalks from the airport to the nearby high school. Some had mixed feelings about the president's arrival, which came two weeks after the city became the site of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's too late," said Lisa Lopez, 40, who works at a fast food restaurant near the airport. "He should have been here the day after the shooting. Why a week later? This feels like a pitstop on the way to Hawaii. And our city is hurting."
But others on the sidewalk at Third and Del Rosa Avenue were thrilled that the president had taken time from his busy schedule to stop and offer words of comfort to a community still in pain. They cheered and screamed out his name as he drove by.
"This literally hit home," said Alicia Montoya, 13, a 7th grader. "It's good the president is here and is showing his support for the people of San Bernardino. Knowing that we are supported makes me feel safer and not alone."
Obama's visit comes a day after Enrique Marquez Jr, a friend and former neighbor of one of the shooters, was arrested and charged with providing material support to terrorists. Marquez, who bought the two assault rifles used in the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino was charged with firearms violations and conspiring to carry out two other attacks in 2012.
A few years ago, he lived next door to Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, killed 14 people and injured 22 others on Dec. 2. Marquez and Farook had planned to attack other targets in Southern California, including a nearby community college and highway, according to a criminal complaint.
The president didn’t address the arrest or any details of the ongoing investigation.
For Obama meetings with the victims of mass shootings have become a grim and recurring part of his presidency. In some instances, such as the shootings at Newtown, Conn. and Charleston, S.C., the president has spoken at memorial services or funerals for the victims. This time he and the first lady — headed to Hawaii for their annual vacation — were on the ground for only a short time to meet privately and quietly with the families.
When their meetings were done, they strode up the steps of Air Force One where their two daughters were waiting.