WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama first addressed the death of Trayvon Martin last year, he did so passionately, declaring that if he had a son, he would look like the slain 17-year-old. His powerful and personal commentary marked a rare public reflection on race from the nation's first black president.
But now, with the man who fatally shot Martin acquitted and the burden of any future charges squarely on his own administration, Obama is seeking to inject calm into a case that has inflamed passions, including his own. In a brief statement, the president called Martin's killing a "tragedy" but implored the public to respect a Florida jury's decision to clear George Zimmerman, the man charged in the teen's death.
"I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher," Obama said Sunday. "But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken."
The president's restrained response underscores the complicated calculus for the White House as it grapples with the fallout from the racially charged case. Obama faces inevitable questions about the verdict, given his previous statements on the matter and his own race. But as the head of a government considering levying federal charges against Zimmerman, he must also avoid the appearance of influencing an ongoing Justice Department investigation.
"Barack Obama is a lawyer and I think his legal sense is that he should do nothing that would interrupt or disrupt any future matters involving George Zimmerman," said Charles Ogletree, a law professor at Harvard University and longtime friend of the president.
As the nation's first black president, Obama is frequently pressed about questions of race, though he often refrains from weighing in. And on the occasions where he had, he's had uneven results.
Obama's speech on race as a presidential candidate in 2008 was widely praised as an honest — and politically risky — handling of the tricky topic. But his 2009 comments about the arrest of a black Harvard professor in his own home turned into a political firestorm and the president was forced to retract his statement that police had "acted stupidly" in detaining Henry Louis Gates.
Much of the furor over the president's criticism of Gates' arrest centered on the fact that his comments targeted law enforcement. Perhaps learning a lesson from that experience, the president and his advisers have purposefully avoided weighing in on the handling of the Zimmerman case by police, the courts and his own Justice Department, which is reviewing the prospect of filing criminal civil rights charges.
"He will not comment on a Department of Justice investigation or on a decision that the Department of Justice will make on how to proceed, if to proceed," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Instead, Obama's comments — both in the weeks after Martin's death and following the verdict — have been more personal, focusing in part on his role as a father.
"If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon," Obama said when he first addressed the case in March 2012. "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."
Despite White House efforts to carefully avoid weighing in on legal aspects of the case, Republicans have criticized the president for commenting at all, saying his words helped a local legal matter morph into a national spectacle.
"President Obama politicized this at the beginning of it, I believe, unfortunately, by injecting himself into it," said Karl Rove, former political adviser to President George W. Bush.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the president turned a law-and-order matter "into a political issue." Rove and King both spoke Sunday on Fox News.
Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday in the February shooting death of Martin, who was unarmed when he was killed. Martin's parents and civil rights leaders said Zimmerman racially profiled the teenager when he followed him through a gated community and shot him, but Zimmerman said he was physically assaulted by Martin and shot the teenager in self-defense.
The Justice Department can still launch criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Attorney General Eric Holder is reviewing evidence to determine whether to proceed on such charges after stepping aside to allow the state prosecution to run its course. However, legal experts say there are major hurdles to federal prosecution, including the burden of proving that Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch leader, was motivated by racial animosity.
Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, said Monday that Martin's killing was a "tragic, unnecessary shooting." The Justice Department, he said, will follow "the facts and the law" as it reviews evidence to see whether federal criminal charges are warranted.
The NAACP and other civil rights organizations dismayed by the Florida jury's verdict are calling on the Justice Department to open a case against Zimmerman. As of Monday evening, more than 17,000 people had signed a White House petition supporting DOJ charges.
Senior White House officials have discussed the case with NAACP leaders in recent days, the organization said. But the White House insisted Monday that the president would not personally be involved in the decision to levy charges, nor would he weigh in personally on whether he supported that step.
"Cases are brought on the merits," Carney said. "The president expects, as in every case, that the process will be handled in the way it should be, at the Department of Justice, and certainly not here."