As President Obama spoke this afternoon about the massacre in Orlando, those watching attempted to calculate how many times he had done the exact same thing before. Was this the 20th time he called a shooting horrific or tragic? Did he have to come up with a 14th way to say that the country was suffering from overwhelming grief? Or was it the 15th? "Too many to count" seems to suffice, hitting home how this has become part of the presidential job description, and how painful it must be to realize that a single statement on a terrible crime becomes a dirge when you look across an entire presidency.
It is too soon to say what the exact reaction to this shooting — the deadliest in American history — will be, but the response already has the contours of all the shootings that have come before it: the same tweets, the same political ping-pong, the same words to say that there are no words to describe these crimes.
And Obama has to play the same role he always does in these awful moments, every time realizing that not much has changed since the last time he spoke.
Over and over again, he notes how many times he has made the same statement, with varying synonyms for grief. "We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years," he said after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. In the same speech, in case that point didn’t hit home, he added, "As a country, we have been through this too many times." Last fall, he said, "There’s been another mass shooting in America -- this time, in a community college in Oregon." When answering a question about the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado last December, Obama said, "I mean, I say this every time we’ve got one of these mass shootings."
In some speeches, he asks the country to think about how to improve gun policy; in others, he asks Americans to instead take the preliminary step of trying to come up with a reason why so many shootings happen in the first place. In today's address, after years of watching his previous addresses on shootings evaporate after being read, Obama made clear that he thinks that everyone else’s reactions to these shootings have been getting as predictable as his. "To actively do nothing," he said, "is a decision as well."
Because of the number of mass shootings that have happened in the past year, the three remaining presidential candidates already have a lot of experience responding to mass shootings. You can be "horrified, disgusted, and saddened." You can call on everyone to "stand together." You can even say, "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance."
At this point, one of the questions at a presidential debate this fall should be, "How will you find a new way to convey how absolutely heartbreaking the 14th or 15th or 20th shooting of your presidency is when you are forced to respond to it — and what words will you use to call for policy changes to prevent it from ever happening again when nothing has changed since the first?" Are there any synonyms for horrified left to deploy if, or when, that time comes?