President Obama set to eulogize pastor in Charleston shooting

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WASHINGTON -- Friday's funeral service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney won't be the first time President Barack Obama delivers a high-profile eulogy; with a year-and-a-half remaining in office, it may not be the last.

But when the President stands in historic downtown Charleston to remember the slain pastor and eight others shot down in their church last week, his speech will move beyond just grief for the victims -- Obama will step directly into a national conversation about race in which he plays a central role.

The President, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, a bipartisan host of high-level members of Congress and Hillary Clinton were all headed to TD Arena on Friday for the memorial service more than a week after a 21-year-old man opened fire at a Bible study inside Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The shooter declared he was there to "kill black people," and an online manifesto attributed to him contained white supremacist screeds.

Obama, responding to the shooting hours into its aftermath, said the attack "raises questions about a dark part of our history" and called racism "a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals."

Later, speaking during a podcast interview, he candidly addressed new questions about American racism prompted by the attack, using the N-word to explain that suggestions the country has been "cured" of racism are misguided.

The topic of race -- along with new calls for gun control -- aren't off the table for Friday's eulogy, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who said the President was still working through drafts of the speech with his chief speechwriter Cody Keenan.

The focus, he said, would remain the nine victims of last Wednesday's massacre, many of whom were leaders in the church.

"The President will be mindful of not just how sad it is that those individuals were taken from us, but also use the occasion to celebrate their lives," Earnest said. "It's clear that we're talking about some rather remarkable people who have led rather remarkable lives."

If Obama does make calls for more restrictive gun laws, he'll follow a model he set in Newtown, Connecticut, when during remarks at a memorial service after the 2012 school massacre he made a direct call for tighter gun control laws.

However, at other funerals and vigils following shootings, including in Tucson, Arizona, and Aurora, Colorado, he's steered clear of the gun control issue.

The shooting in Charleston left Obama "shaken," according to Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who spoke with Obama the morning after the incident.

Unlike past times Obama has confronted an act of violence, he knew the highest profile victim of the Charleston shooting personally. Obama met Pinckney as an early supporter of his 2008 presidential bid. Biden met the pastor and state lawmaker less than a year ago at a prayer breakfast in the state capital.

That personal connection will differentiate Friday's eulogy from the funerals Obama keynoted after previous shootings. So, too, will the renewed questions on race spurred by the shooter's apparent motivations.

Around the country, traditional symbols of the Confederacy have come under renewed scrutiny, including the Confederate flag that flies at the South Carolina State House.

Obama himself used some of his bluntest language to date on race during an interview with comedian Marc Maron on Friday, saying that just because the N-word is no longer used frequently in public, "that's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not."

The moment was a distant cry from the earlier days of Obama's presidency, when he studiously avoided discussing race or the implications of his election to office.

"I think that the President has grown very weary of having to circumvent these issues, which a lot of people thought was the appropriate thing for him to do as president of the United States," Clyburn said. "But I think he has reached a conclusion that he needs to meet this issue head on."

By Kevin Liptak

CNN White House Producer