President needs to lead in Ferguson
Why isn’t President Barack Obama on the front lines in Ferguson, Mo?
It’s a question pundits have raised in the wake of sustained clashes between police and protesters (and opportunistic looters) over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer in the largely black suburb of St. Louis.
Make no mistake, the president has been vocal in his calls to end violent confrontations. He’s taken an even-handed tone, asserting the right for peaceful protests, but saying there’s no excuse for looting or antagonizing police. But that message is getting lost between Washington, D.C. and St. Louis County.
We think the president would be far more effective in making a personal appearance in Ferguson. As the only black president in U.S. history and a constitutional scholar to boot, Obama is uniquely suited to ask the people of Ferguson to show some faith in the system — no matter how slowly the wheels of justice seem to turn. Shouldn’t he defuse a racially charged atmosphere?
No, says Jonathan Capehart, a member of the Washington Post’s editorial board. The president should be commended for not indulging in showy theatrics “that might make people feel good in the short-term, but do nothing to advance a greater cause.”
The president, Capehart wrote, has done everything he can, including dispatching U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, also African-American, to the scene to personally oversee a federal investigation of the shooting. The systemic problems that gave rise to the shooting can’t be solved in a 15-minute speech.
But New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd frames Ferguson in the context of Obama’s growing aloofness. The president’s disdain for partisan squabbles has alienated many supporters within his own party, leaving him few allies to manage crises like Ferguson. The president who once touted himself as a uniter who could rise above the partisan fray “turns out to be a singularly unequipped to operate in a polarized environment,” Dowd wrote. “... the country needs its president to illuminate and lead, not sink into some petulant expression of his own aloofness, where he regards himself as a party of his own and a victim of petty, needy, bickering egomanics.”
An appearance in Ferguson would answer critics. But more importantly it could help the community move beyond this singular event and start working on long-term solutions to pressing inequities. It would also be a golden opportunity to remind the people of Ferguson that they have the power, to not only demand change, but to effectuate it through the ballot box.
Indeed the president’s first question might be: “Ferguson is two-thirds black. Why don’t you have better representation on the city council?”
As Dowd points out, F.D.R. welcomed the hatred of his biggest critics. Because he believed in what he was doing, he carried a country’s confidence on his shoulders. President Obama has little time left in office to leave a legacy. Helping America heal its racial divisions should rank high for a president who is biracial. Maybe tackling a problem like Ferguson will incite some passion in the president and lead him out of an exile of his own making.