President Obama tours the devastation in Moore, Okla., May 26, 2013. (Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images)
"I'm just a messenger here today, letting everybody here know that you are not alone, that you've got folks behind you."
After touring the tornado damage in Oklahoma, on Sunday, President Barack Obama found himself in an all-too-familiar role: consoler in chief. From Tucson to Newtown, Joplin to Moore, Obama's visits to cities and towns torn apart by tragedy have become an important, if sadly routine, part of his presidency.
"Whenever I come to an area that's been devastated by some natural disaster like this, I want to make sure everybody understands I'm speaking on behalf of the entire country," Obama said, standing where the Plaza Towers Elementary School once stood. "Everywhere, fellow Americans are praying with you."
"This is a strong community with strong character," he continued. "There's no doubt they're going to bounce back."
A little over a month ago at a church in Boston's South End, the president delivered a similar message in the wake of the marathon bombings.
"Scripture tells us to run with endurance the race that is set before us," Obama said at the interfaith service. "This doesn't stop us. And that's what you've taught us, Boston. That's what you've reminded us, to push on. To persevere. To not grow weary. To not get faint. Even when it hurts. Even when our heart aches. We summon the strength that maybe we didn't even know we had, and we carry on. We finish the race."
During Obama's five years in office, "this presidential ritual has become as familiar a symbol of sadness as the seas of stuffed animals and flowers that accompany these mournful scenes," Joe Heim wrote in the Washington Post. "Perhaps more than any president before him, Obama has had to take on the role of consoler in chief with increasing regularity, a result of a steady stream of tragedies and an increasing expectation that they all merit a presidential visit and embrace."
Indeed, it's "hard not to notice that perhaps the Obama presidency will not be measured by his successes but by his solace," Richard Parker wrote in the Miami Herald after last month's plant explosion in West, Texas. "Not the place in history a president wishes to occupy."
President Obama speaks at an interfaith service in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012. (Getty Images)
In December in Newtown, Conn., following what Obama later said was the toughest day of his presidency, the consoler in chief spoke to a community which had just lost 20 children in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation," Obama said at the interfaith service. "I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We've pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown, you are not alone."
Obama began his speech in Newtown by quoting scripture: "Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day."
He did the same in Aurora, Colo., last July, after visiting a victim of the deadly movie theater shootings:
Scripture says that "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And when you have an opportunity to visit with families who have lost their loved ones—as I described to them, I come to them not so much as president as I do as a father and as a husband. And I think that the reason stories like this have such an impact on us is because we can all understand what it would be to have somebody that we love taken from us in this fashion—what it would be like and how it would impact us.
In Tuscon, Ariz., in 2011, the president addressed the community at an interfaith service days after a gunman killed 6 people and wounded 13 in an attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow," Obama said. "There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: The hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief."
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
In Moore on Sunday, President Obama did not select a passage from the Bible himself, instead relaying an anecdote from media coverage of the tornado.
"There was a story that really struck me," Obama said. "In the rubble was found a Bible, open to the words that read: A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.' And it's a reminder, as scripture often is, that God has a plan, and it's important, though, that we also recognize we're an instrument of his will. And we need to know that as fellow Americans, we're going to be there as shelter from the storm."
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