Once upon a time, there was a man who gave moving and important speeches about race. He was careful to respect history, to call out injustice, to acknowledge competing anxieties -- and, crucially, to elucidate a path forward. His speeches touched Americans of every color and background and gave them hope that it is possible to make progress in their great national project of creating a more just and equal society.
That man was Barack Obama. As a little-known Senate candidate a decade ago, he offered a grand vision of a united America; four years later, as the Democrats' leading presidential candidate, he offered a more personal reflection. Obama's unique ability to both articulate and embody the equal-opportunity ideal of America helped him become the country’s first biracial president.
Since he has taken office, however, this Obama has mostly gone missing. It has never been more manifest, or painful, than these past weeks in Ferguson, Missouri. As local and state authorities bumble their way through the crisis that erupted over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Obama has said little of note. Yesterday he held a news conference in which he checked all the necessary boxes: He condemned violence and looting, endorsed the rights of protesters, acknowledged racial grievances with the criminal justice system, and suggested that Americans "use this moment to seek out our shared humanity.”
Then he hopped on Air Force One to resume his vacation.
Obama was right to recognize the magnitude of this moment. But he seems not to realize that he himself has to be the one to seize it. It is his job as president, of course, and it also happens to be a task that almost perfectly matches his talents and demeanor.
Attorney General Eric Holder will be in Ferguson tomorrow. But the president should go, too -- if not tomorrow then in the days or weeks ahead.
So why isn't he? Obama said yesterday that his reluctance to say or do more reflects his reluctance to "put my thumb on the scales one way or the other" during a federal investigation. Undoubtedly he also is mindful of the backlash that greeted his remarks about the Henry Louis Gates contretemps five years ago and the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and he must also know that many Democrats, with the midterm elections looming, are wary of his making a comment or gesture that could alienate some white voters.
To which there is only one proper response: So what? This is a moment for the president to act. He can lead by helping to bring together a town riven by a tension sadly common in America -- between a black community that feels disrespected and a police force that feels misunderstood. He can convene, listen and show that there is a messy, but peaceful way forward. If he succeeds in lowering temperatures, many Americans (including some Republicans) will be reminded why they voted for him 2008. If he doesn't, many Americans may give him credit for trying.
Going to Ferguson doesn't require congressional approval or the cooperation of fickle foreign governments. He needn't even give a speech, though all Americans could learn by watching a public forum in which the coolly analytical man they elected, whose white family came from neighboring Kansas, whose black roots were forged in neighboring Illinois, creates a space where warring neighbors can find their way back to comity.
In other words, there is no valid reason for Obama not to get on his plane and go to Ferguson. This is not only the job Obama signed up for, but also what Americans elected him to do.
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