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Obama Travels To Orlando In Wake Of Nightclub Massacre

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Obama and Vice President Biden are in Orlando, a city still coming to grips with Sunday's massacre at a gay nightclub. A gunman there killed 49 people and wounded dozens more.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The president has been meeting with survivors and the families of those who died, and he has just delivered a speech in Orlando. As he said earlier this week, the president is again saying this is a time to reflect on how to end the violence and discrimination against the LGBT community. As soon as we have audio of his comments, we will bring that to you.

SHAPIRO: We're going to hear now from two people who have been watching President Obama respond to mass shootings throughout his two terms. Joining us by Skype is Corey Ealons. He's a senior vice president at VOX Global, a Washington public relations firm. And before that, he served as communications adviser to President Obama. Thanks for being with us.

COREY EALONS: Thank you all.

MCEVERS: And here with us is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Kelly, good to be with you.

MCEVERS: So there's obviously a lot of symbolism attached to this visit. What is the message that president Obama wants to send?

HORSLEY: Well, it's partly personal. The president said he held and hugged the grieving family members in Orlando today, but it is, as you say, also symbolic. He is sort of standing in for all the people in this country who have been moved by what happened in Orlando and who want to, in some way, show their support for that city and those families that are grieving.

SHAPIRO: And Scott, this is sadly a kind of visit that the president is all too familiar with.

HORSLEY: I have accompanied the president when he's made these kinds of trips many times, you know - Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., Charleston, S.C. The list goes on and on. The president has been personally touched by those visit, and he certainly shares the grief of those who've lost loved ones. Also, as a president and a policymaker, he has to think seriously about what we might do as a country to respond to these attacks and make them more difficult.

One of the things he said today is that while the motives of the gunman in some of these different mass shootings might be different - maybe it's mental illness in one case; maybe it's hate or terrorism in another; maybe it's motives that are known only to that individual - the instruments are similar. And he has said repeatedly that one thing for us to think about as a country is how easy it is for people who are bent on this kind of mayhem to get their hands on dangerous weapons.

MCEVERS: And Corey Ealons, I want to turn to you. How have you seen the president change over time as he responds to these attacks?

EALONS: Well, the first response he had was after the Fort Hood incident. And because that was on a military base, even though it was a tragic incident, he was responding to folks who were serving in the military, so that takes on a very different vibe. You could actually see him physically and mentally begin to shift, emotionally begin to shift when the Sandy Hook incident occurred. I mean, we all remember him standing at that podium, wiping back the tears from his eyes, trying not to cry, trying to collect himself as he was giving his comments from the briefing room in the White House.

And then of course just last year in Charleston, he just simply broke down. He just simply decided he could not contain the emotion he felt because he's moved from a period of trying to console the nation and console the families to also being visibly angry about these situations each time they occur. And you saw that again just this week.

SHAPIRO: So Corey, as you describe that progression, you know, it's hard not to notice that these were also different targets, whether you talk about a school, a black church, a gay nightclub. What are you going to be listening for in the president's comments in Orlando today?

EALONS: Well, I think today is unique because it is an attack on one community, on the LGBT community. And we know how much tremendous progress we've made in civil rights for that community over the past several years, so I think we're going to hear a specific message for those folks as well and how - recognizing how they've come together as a community not just in Orlando but all over the country. We've seen them embrace each other and decide that they're going to do something about this. And I think you're going to see the president acknowledge that today.

MCEVERS: And Scott, not only the fact that this was - that the LGBT community was the target in this attack - the gunman also pledged allegiance during the attack to ISIS. How do you think that colors this visit?

HORSLEY: Yes, so there's a lot of different cross currents in this particular incident. But the president was very quick to acknowledge that this was a particular community that was targeted. He said on Sunday that this was particularly heartbreaking for our fellow Americans who are gay and lesbian. And in simply recognizing that and describing the LGBT community as our friends and fellow Americans, the president was making a statement about the place that community now has in the American community - not always true when gay bars have come under attack in the past.

And then you're absolutely right. The fact that this is - that the gunman in this case pledged, in the midst of the attack, his allegiance to ISIS adds another wrinkle and certainly provides sort of another boogey man for the country to focus on as we try to wrestle with how to deal with these sorts of attacks.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a little bit of the president's remarks from earlier this week. We have that tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: This is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. No act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.

MCEVERS: And Scott, the president also met with law enforcement during this Orlando visit. Again, it's not the first time he's made that a priority, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. He wanted to express his thanks for the folks who rushed into the club and, in this case, did help to rescue dozens of people who were being held hostage there. We also expect the president to pay tribute to the doctors and nurses who cared for the wounded and the ordinary people - the friends who were in the club, perhaps, or the folks who came out to the club later to help their neighbors and their friends.

He'll talk about how communities rally at times like this, the outpouring of support we've seen from people who were in the club, around the club, the numerous people in Orlando who stood in the hot sun for hours to donate blood. As the president's motorcade made its way through Orlando today, you could see some of the symbols of that community support - large rainbow flags and a sign outside a Harley-Davidson dealer saying simply, pray for Orlando.

SHAPIRO: You know, Corey, you talked about how the president actually feels very emotionally connected to these events, and he also has a role to play as the country's leader when Congress is debating policies surrounding guns and so forth. How does he balance those two roles?

EALONS: Well, I mean, that's exactly right. I mean, the first priority in these speeches is to console the families and the communities - the local communities - and to give them solace. The second point is to console the nation, to give them some sense of hope coming out of tragedies like this. But then the final thing - and I think that you're going to hear this today as well more overtly - a political message that this is something that we can do. We can fix this if we decide to act in Washington. So I think you're going to hear that overt message coming from the president today as well.

SHAPIRO: That's Corey Ealons, senior vice president at the PR firm VOX Global who was a communications adviser to President Obama earlier in the administration - as well as NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

EALONS: Thank you, Folks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.