By David Jackson, USA TODAY
(USA TODAY) President Obama on Friday made his most extensive comments on race since entering the White House, and they are generating extensive commentary.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost the 2008 presidential race to Obama, called the president's remarks "very impressive," and said they should help all Americans think about how to improve race relations in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death.
"I think we continue to make progress," McCain told CNN's State of the Union, but recent events show "we still have a long way to go."
McCain also said he wouldn't "second guess" the Florida jury's decision this month to acquit George Zimmerman for the death of the 17-year-old Trayvon.
During a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room on Friday, Obama said all Americans should respect the Zimmerman verdict. Speaking personally and emotionally, the president also said white Americans should understand the pain that African-Americans feel over Trayvon's death, and the deep suspicions they harbor about the American justice system.
"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," said the nation's first African-American president, adding that "it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
Obama's remarks dominated discussions on Sunday news shows, winning many compliments, but also some criticism.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., also on CNN, said he appreciates how Obama reflected the frustrations of black men who are regarded with suspicion simply walking down the street.
"That's me on a daily basis ... especially when I'm home in New Orleans and I'm dressed down," Richmond said, adding that only African-American males "can really sense the anger and frustration when it happens, especially when you're doing what you should be doing."
Journalist Tavis Smiley told NBC's Meet The Press that Obama -- who has often avoided public discussions of race during his presidency -- had to be "pushed to that podium" after nearly a week of protest over the Zimmerman verdict. Smiley and others said Obama needs to address the economic challenges of African-American communities, as well as problems in the justice system.
"On this issue, you cannot lead from behind," said Smiley, an African-American.
Charles Ogletree, a law professor of Obama's at Harvard, defended his former student's efforts on race. He told NBC that Obama should not be seen as "the black president," but the leader of the nation as a whole.
"He's the president who happens to be black," Ogletree said.
During his White House remarks, Obama called for new and better law enforcement training to help defuse tensions with minorities, and he criticized racial profiling and Florida's "stand your ground" law. (On CNN, McCain said he hopes his state of Arizona will review its own "stand your ground" law.)
The president called on Americans to do "soul searching" in the wake of the Zimmerman case.
"We have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues," Obama said. "And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions."