President Obama, who as a candidate once urged supporters to “bring a gun” to the knife fight of his campaign, on Tuesday decried “vicious” rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates.
During the annual “Friends of Ireland” luncheon at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Obama told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that he is “more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail lately.”
“We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities — at Americans who don’t look like ‘us,’ or pray like ‘us’ or vote like we do,” Mr. Obama said in an obvious reference to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. “We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech, however offensive it may be. In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence, and we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders.”
As he has increasingly in recent days, Mr. Obama lamented “any effort to spread fear or encourage violence, or to shut people down when they’re trying to speak, or turn Americans against one another.”
“As a citizen who will still be leading this office, I will not support somebody who practices that kind of politics,” the president said.
But as a candidate for the White House in 2008, Mr. Obama was no stranger to violent rhetoric. He encouraged the notion that he was a product of Chicago’s particularly tough brand of politics.
At a campaign event in Philadelphia in June 2008, Mr. Obama told supporters, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”
Later that year, as polls showed a close race between Mr. Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, Mr. Obama urged a crowd of about 1,500 at a campaign rally in Elko, Nevada, to get confrontational in their community for him.
“I need you to go out and talk to your friends and talk to your neighbors,” Mr. Obama said. “I want you to talk to them whether they are independent or whether they are Republican. I want you to argue with them and get in their face.”
The president on Tuesday seemed to be referring to such comments of his own when he remarked, “All of us can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly, I can. And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said there is a distinction between the “gun to a knife fight” rhetoric and candidates who “denigrate women or minorities, or people with disabilities, or Muslims.”
“You understand why that might be different than somebody who stands in front of a stage of thousands of roaring people and suggests that somehow Muslims, or people with disabilities, or other minorities are responsible for the problems that are plaguing America,” Mr. Earnest said.
Mr. Trump has, variously, called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and mocked a journalist with a disability. An ad from a Republican group also is taking Mr. Trump to task for using offensive language about women, including the terms “bimbo,” “dog” and “fat pig.”
The president didn’t refer to Mr. Trump by name Tuesday but said the “vicious atmosphere” in politics must stop.
“Animosity breeds animosity,” Mr. Obama said. “And this is also about the American brand. Why would we want to see that brand tarnished? The world pays attention to what we say and what we do.”
Addressing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, Mr. Obama said they disagree on most policy questions.
“But I don’t have a bad thing to say about you as a man,” Mr. Obama said as Mr. Ryan nodded back. “I know you want what’s best for America.”
Mr. Ryan earlier Tuesday condemned efforts to disrupt political rallies but said all presidential candidates bear responsibility for preventing violence at campaign events.
“All candidates have an obligation to do what they can do. … Provide an atmosphere of harmony, to reduce violence, to not incite violence,” Mr. Ryan told reporters.
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