President Obama pauses while speaking at the "Healing Our City: An Interfaith Service" at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, April 18, 2013, after the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
(Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)
(USA Today) -- The role of America's consoler in chief is one that President Obama has had to take on repeatedly over the past three years, and is a responsibility that he's approached with no small measure of humility.
After visiting with the family of victims as well as some survivors of last year's mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., Obama acknowledged that "words are always inadequate in these kinds of situations."
"I come to them not so much as president as I do as a father and as a husband," Obama explained.
The president will be on the spot again on Sunday, when he visits with families of the victims of Monday's shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard and delivers remarks at a memorial service.
The role is a difficult one - requiring him to play the parts of both preacher and mourner - as he helps a nation come to grips with the most recent episode of violence that is shocking not just for its depravity but also because it took place in a familiar humdrum setting of an office.
In addressing the mourners in national tragedies - whether it be the aftermath of the Boston bombings, a natural disaster like the recent Oklahoma tornadoes or a mass shooting, as he has on three previous occasions - Obama's unenviable task has been to effectively explain senseless loss of life, provide comfort and chart a way forward.
Aides to the president have not offered any details on themes or messages that Obama may try to strike with his remarks at Sunday's Navy Yard memorial.
But in the days since Monday's shooting left 13 dead, Obama has twice, albeit briefly, addressed the tragedy, hinting at the limits of his power in addressing the scourge of gun violence and his concern that responding to such incidents has become a "ritual" in America.
He spoke first in the hours after the Navy Yard tragedy when he lamented that the nation was having to confront "yet another mass shooting."
Obama commented on the tragedy a second time the following day in a television interview when he noted that he has signed nearly two dozen executive orders to address gun violence.
Ultimately, Obama argued, it was up to Congress to act to firm up the country's background check system for firearm purchases - something he tried and failed to win in the aftermath of the December mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school left 20 young children dead.
For Sunday's memorial, the pressure is on Obama to say something meaningful to a nation that appears to be growing inured to the horrors of such mass shootings and where there is little reason to believe that a legislative remedy is in the offing.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week after the Navy Yard shooting that it remains clear that there is little desire from lawmakers to reopen the gun debate only months after a White House push to strengthen background checks failed.
The tragedy also comes as the administration faces a series of difficult battles with GOP lawmakers in the weeks ahead, leaving little time or energy to relitigate the gun issue.
Among the hot-button domestic issues facing Obama at the moment: The White House is pushing forward with implementation of Obama's signature health care law in the face of a Republican call for repeal; the federal government appears headed toward a shutdown at the beginning of next month; and Obama and the House GOP are at loggerheads over raising the nation's debt limit.
At the same time, Obama is trying to maintain pressure on Syria's Bashar Assad, whose regime the U.S. intelligence community deemed responsible for a chemical attack last month in his worn-torn country that left more than 1,400 dead. The president is also trying to take advantage of a diplomatic opening - created by the installation of a new, more moderate president in Iran - to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
In the three previous high-profile mass shootings since 2011 - the tragedy in Tucson that left six dead and grievously wounded former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and the slaughter by a mentally ill young man of kindergarten and first-grade boys and girls and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School - Obama took a slightly different tack after each tragedy.
After Tucson - just months after Democrats were drubbed at the polls in the first midterm election of his presidency - Obama offered a heartfelt tribute to those who died and steered away from the politics of the gun debate. The president noted the tragedy would prompt reflection, but called for all participants to "make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle."
At Aurora - which came in the midst of his summer re-election battle with Mitt Romney - Obama paused his campaign and flew to Colorado to visit with the loved ones of the victims and survivors recovering from their wounds. He used his remarks to pay tribute to the first responders and heroes of the tragedy.
Days later, he used a speech to the National Urban League to call for lawmakers to take an unspecified "common sense" approach to assault-rifle sales in light of the Aurora incident. But gun control remained largely out of the conversation during the rest of his re-election campaign.
After the Newtown massacre in December 2012 - first in remarks at the White House where he fought back tears as he spoke and then again at the memorial service in Connecticut - Obama made perhaps the most impassioned speeches of his presidency and said the tragedy was a call to action.
In each of the recent mass shooting tragedies, Obama has also turned to Scripture to offer some explanation, or at least words of comfort. At Tucson, he looked to Job, in Aurora he spoke from Revelation, and after Newtown he repeated lines from Corinthians.
"Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day," Obama reassured mourners in Connecticut.
Nine months - and another mass shooting - later, making the case once again to keep the faith will be no easy task for the president.