President Obama Speaks at Sandy Hill Vigil in Newtown, Connecticut

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at an interfaith vigil for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut. (Photo: Getty Images)

President Obama spoke for a nation in sorrow, but the slaughter of 20 children left the president, like so many others, reaching for words.  Alone on a spare stage after what he described as the worst single day of his presidency, the commander in chief was a parent in grief.

“I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depth of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts,” Obama said at an evening vigil in the grieving community of Newtown, Conn. “I can only hope that it helps for you to know that you are not alone in your grief.”

The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday elicited horror around the world, soul-searching in the United States, fresh political debate about gun control and questions about the incomprehensible – what drove the suspect to act.

It also left a newly re-elected president openly grappling for bigger answers. Obama promised that in the coming weeks, he would use “whatever power this office holds” to engage with law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents and educators in an effort to prevent more tragedies like Newtown.

“Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” he asked the audience.

President Obama Speaks at Sandy Hill Vigil in Newtown, Connecticut

A man holds a stuffed dog before U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at an interfaith vigil for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut. (Photo: Getty Images)

Obama promised to lead a national effort for “change,” but left unclear what exactly the change would entail.

“What choice do we have?” the president asked. “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

As Obama read some of the names of victims early in his remarks, several people broke down, their sobs heard throughout the hall.

For part of his speech, Obama discussed the joys and struggles of being a parent (transcript via the Washington Post):

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?

[...]

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? [Emphasis added]

He continued with another push for change:

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.  ​[Emphasis added]

President Obama closed his remarks by slowly reading the first names of each of the 26 victims.

“God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory,” he said.

Here is video of the president’s remarks:

​The Associated Press contributed to this report.