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Did Obama strike the wrong tone on Monday?

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 7:38 AM EDT, Wed September 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama criticized for launching attack on congressional Republicans in hours after Navy Yard shootings
  • White House spokesman defends Obama, saying time is running out on Congress to act on economy
  • Obama touched on the shootings and Syria situation before criticizing GOP in previously scheduled event
  • NEW: Obama says in interview that he discussed the shooting while it was unfolding

Washington (CNN) -- The White House defended President Barack Obama from criticism that he was tone deaf in his reaction to the mass shootings at Washington Navy Yard.

Obama: Shooting a 'cowardly' act

For a second straight day, White House press secretary Jay Carney faced questions about a Monday afternoon event that occurred as the situation at the Navy Yard was still unfolding. Obama touched on the tragedy before forcefully criticizing conservative Republicans who are threatening to shut down the government.

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Twelve people were killed in a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16. Here are photos of some of the victims: Vishnu Bhalchandra Pandit, 61, of North Potomac, Maryland. Twelve people were killed in a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16. Here are photos of some of the victims: Vishnu Bhalchandra Pandit, 61, of North Potomac, Maryland.
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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive for a memorial service in Fort Hood, Texas, on Wednesday, April 9. Officials say Army Spc. Ivan Lopez took a .45-caliber handgun onto the military post last week, killing three people and injuring 16 before taking his own life. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive for a memorial service in Fort Hood, Texas, on Wednesday, April 9. Officials say Army Spc. Ivan Lopez took a .45-caliber handgun onto the military post last week, killing three people and injuring 16 before taking his own life.
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A U.S. Park Police helicopter removes a man from the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. At least 12 people were killed in a shooting rampage, according to Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier. A U.S. Park Police helicopter removes a man from the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16. At least 12 people were killed in a shooting rampage, according to Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
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"I understand that some Republicans are trying to make something of this," Carney said on Tuesday in response to a question from CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.

"The president spoke about the Navy Yard at the very top of his briefing. He talked about the cowardly act that had taken place, the tragedy that was unfolding and the loss of life and he called for and demanded a seamless investigation with federal and local law enforcement officials and that is what we're seeing now," Carney said.

Obama himself stepped in on Tuesday to address the controversy, telling Telemundo in an interview to "keep in mind" that he addressed the shooting while it was still going on, "while we were still gathering information."

He continued, "I think that everybody understands that the minute something like this happens, I'm in touch with the FBI, I'm in touch with my national security team, we're making sure that all the assets are out there for us to deal with this as well as we can."

On the other hand, Obama said, "what is also important to remember is that Congress has a lot of work to do right now" in a short period of time, noting looming fiscal deadlines that he says are crucial for the economy.

Obama had planned on Tuesday to tout his economic accomplishments on the fifth anniversary of the Wall Street meltdown and criticize a group of conservative Republicans for their push to shut down the federal government if the national health care law isn't defunded.

His comments were designed as a prelude to the White House battle plan in the fights over the upcoming deadlines over government funding, the debt ceiling, and as a Americans begin to start enrolling in the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

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White House officials did delay the event from late morning to early afternoon, to ensure that the president wouldn't be speaking at the same time at a news conference updating the evolving situation at the Navy Yard. But they said they never considered canceling the event.

"We are confronting another mass shooting and it happened on a military installation in our nation's capital. It's a shooting that targeted our military and civilian personnel," the president said at the top of his remarks. "These are men and women who were going to work, doing their jobs protecting all of us. They're patriots and they know the dangers of serving abroad but today they face the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home."

But minutes later Obama took the fight to some in the GOP, saying, "I cannot remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it can't get 100% of what it wants. That's never happened before but that's what's happening right now," and adding that forcing a shutdown would be the "height of irresponsibility."

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The president's quick pivot first to the latest developments in the Syrian crisis and then into his criticism of the GOP stands in contrast to his initial reaction to last December's shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, when he urged national unity.

And it brought criticism from House Speaker John Boehner.

"It's a shame that the president could not manage to rise above partisanship today," the top Republican in Congress said in a statement a few hours after Obama's event.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus continued the attack on Tuesday, tweeting "Disappointing that POTUS couldn't rise above partisanship yesterday...hours after #NavyYardShooting"

Former House Speaker and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich expanded on the criticism.

"President Reagan, in the tragedy of the (space shuttle) Challenger, postponed the State of the Union address because he realized the country needed to be in mourning. President Obama should have recognized that an event this painful and tragic, in the nation's capital, required being president rather than partisan, and being concerned about people rather than concerned about attacking," said Gingrich, a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."

A top Republican strategist went a step farther.

"When there is a tragic event like this in the nation's capital and the local baseball team expresses that it would be insensitive to participate in the national pastime, but the president proceeds with a self-congratulatory press conference to celebrate his miniscule economic accomplishments, it tells you the Obama administration has become tone-deaf," said Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor who co-founded Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm. "Bill Clinton, who 'felt our pain,' would never have made this mistake."

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It's not just Republicans who are critical of the president -- a senior Democratic consultant was critical of Obama's timing, too.

"Suprisingly tone-deaf. National unity has been at the heart of the Obama brand since his 2004 'there are no red states and no blue states' speech. To pass up a chance to unite the country after a tragedy was a missed opportunity. Unhelpful in terms of politics. Even more unhelpful in terms of governance," said the consultant, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely.

While Carney says the president "was horrified by this news" (of the shootings), he defended Monday's White House event and wouldn't entertain any second day quarterbacking, saying "we knew what the public knew," adding "we had the same information you did."

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And he pushed back against criticism that Obama's speech was partisan.

"Far from being a partisan speech, the president made clear in his speech that many Republicans on Capitol Hill agree with him that we should not go down the road of threatening to shut down the government or defaulting on our obligations in the name of some partisan agenda item," Carney said.

And White House officials questioned the appropriateness of some House Republicans who they say were launching partisan attacks at the administration on Monday over last September's deadly attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead.

Later Monday, the tone did appear to shift at the White House.

A Latin music event in the East Room that was planned for the evening was postponed, according to White House officials, "in light of today's tragic events at the Washington Navy Yard and out of respect for the victims and their families."

Around the same time, the U.S. flag on top of the White House was lowered to half staff.

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