WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — President Barack Obama spoke in unusually personal terms Friday about the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, a case that has roiled civil rights activists and a suburban Orlando community. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said, vowing to “get to the bottom of what happened.”

Obama expressed sympathy for the parents of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, by a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he was acting in self-defense.

“I can only imagine what these parents are going through, and when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids,” Obama said, calling the case a “tragedy.”

The nation’s first black president aimed his message at Martin’s parents, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans take this with the seriousness that it deserves, and we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Obama said that “every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and everybody pulls together, federal state and local, to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”

Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, thanked Obama for his support, saying in a statement the president’s words “touched us deeply and made us wonder: If his son looked like Trayvon and wore a hoodie, would he be suspicious too?”

Obama brought his voice to an issue that is sensitive in Florida, a large and diverse state that plays an influential role in presidential elections. The Orlando area in central Florida is particularly important, acting as a bellwether for statewide elections.

Republican presidential candidates weighed in after Obama spoke. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called the shooting “horrible case” and referred to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight.

Santorum said: “Stand your ground is not doing what this man did.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney issued a statement after Obama spoke that read: “What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy. There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”

The Justice Department and FBI have opened a civil rights investigation, and a grand jury is considering whether to charge George Zimmerman, who acknowledged shooting the teen but said it was in self-defense. Martin’s parents, civil rights activists and others who have rallied to the cause say they won’t be satisfied until Zimmerman is arrested.

Zimmerman has ties to the Washington area, having graduated from Osbourn Park High School in Manassas .

Police Chief Bill Lee stepped down temporarily this week to try to cool the building anger that his department had not arrested Zimmerman. Hours later, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the local state attorney, Norman Wolfinger, had recused himself from the case in hopes of “toning down the rhetoric” surrounding it.

Martin was returning from a trip to a convenience store when Zimmerman started following him, telling police dispatchers he looked suspicious. At some point, the two got into a fight, and Zimmerman pulled out his gun.

Zimmerman told police Martin attacked him after he had given up on chasing the teenager and was returning to his sport utility vehicle.

Obama cautioned before speaking that he must “be careful so we’re not impairing any investigation.” But he said he was glad the Justice Department was investigating and that Florida officials had formed the task force.

“I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how did something like this happen, and that means we examine the laws and the context for what happened as well as the specifics of the incident,” Obama said.

The case resonates with many black Americans, a key voting group during Obama’s 2008 election, who see it as yet another example of bias toward blacks. Civil rights groups have held rallies in Florida and New York, saying the shooting was unjustified. Of Sanford’s 53,000 residents, 57 percent are white and 30 percent are black.

Obama himself has tried to downplay race, as he did early in his term after the controversial arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard University professor, by a white police sergeant in Cambridge, Mass.

Gates was arrested in his own home after the police sergeant arrived to investigate a possible burglary. The charges were dropped, but Obama said the police had “acted stupidly,” breathing life into a lingering debate. The president said later he should have expressed his concerns with different language and invited both Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Comments (10)
  1. Boogliodemus says:

    Young roid be a thug. Bang. The end.

  2. LLeone says:

    “Obama Vows To Get To The Bottom Of What Happened To Trayvon Martin”

    Shoudn’t Obama have gotten to the bottom of it well before opening his big, fat yap about the case–on national TV?

  3. DinoBravo says:

    Joining the ranks of Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al. And this is our POTUS? Where are you November?

  4. regdwight says:

    He’s such a gas bag. Why doesn’t he get to the bottom of other killings? The man has set back race relations in America by 40 years.

  5. lg says:

    Obama is just making the situation worse. He is inflaming the public just as he did some time back when he said the Cambridge police “acted stupidly.” He had to eat that one… remember? Well, now, with his big mouth on the Trayvon Martin case, he has incited the New Black Panthers to put out a $10,000 contract on Zimmerman. How ’bout if he just keeps his mouth SHUT !! Surely he has something to keep him busy… other than golf.

  6. SerfCityHereWeCome says:

    What? Zimmerman’s a Depressioncrat? Oops…er…uh…nothing to see here, folks, move along…

  7. Art says:

    Obama says “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”. Well, Trayvon is a gold-tooth tattooed drug dealer, vandal, and thief who was suspended repeatedly from school and brags about his thuggish exploits on social media.

    Sounds like a great parenting job, Barack.

  8. blndone says:

    POTUS just wants to get back those African American voters who voted for him but have fallen off because they finally realized he’s a doofus!

  9. blndone says:

    Was this a gated community? I heard that somewhere. Did he live there? If not, what was he doing there in the first place. Secondly, the hoodie thing bothers me. Wearing a hood up is an intimidation tactic…don’t ya think?

  10. blndone says:

    Oh, and one other thing….SHUT UP OBAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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