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How much has Obama influenced public debate on Trayvon Martin? (+video)

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For this tonal pivot – politically necessary, some say, even responsible – he is garnering some criticism, from conservatives especially. They say that he shouldn’t have engaged in the issue from the get-go, that he elevated tensions and turned a local legal matter into a divisive national debate.

"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, an Iowa Republican, struck a similar theme, saying the president turned the Florida killing "into a political issue." Rove and King both spoke on “Fox News Sunday.”

Of course the same could be said of the president’s critics. Who can claim with validity that Obama was really a key driver of the gavel-to-gavel coverage of this trial?

More generally, should the nation’s first black president not be expected to remark on a matter that has sparked a new conversation about race and justice in America?

It’s worth noting that Obama has rarely and reluctantly stepped directly into topical matters of race, and he has done so, historically, at his own political peril. In Philadelphia, during his 2008 campaign, Obama gave a heartfelt, and largely well-received, treatise on race as a response to growing concerns about his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama’s candidacy in the presidential primary race was in jeopardy at the time.

Less successfully, Obama suggested in 2009 that police “acted stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, outside his home in Cambridge, Mass. That led to an awkward gathering at the White House – over beers, no less – between Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Professor Gates, and the officer who arrested him.

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