It will be an image that may endure beyond Barack Obama’s tenure: The president calling for calm on one side of the TV screen; the scene in Ferguson, Mo. escalating with sirens, smoke, flash grenades, and furious residents on the other.
Obama emerged into the White House Briefing Room shortly after 10 pm ET, a little more than 90 minutes after prosecutors in St. Louis County announced that a grand jury had voted to not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the summer shooting death of Michael Brown.
Even as the president spoke, it felt as if the situation on the ground in Ferguson was beginning to spiral. And viewers could be forgiven for becoming transfixed by the pictures and tuning out Obama’s calls for calm.
Obama was who he usually was: reasonable, professorial, trying to present both sides of the controversy over Brown’s death. None of it came as a surprise; presidents stand for law and order—and this president, mindful as always of his unique place in history, walked the line tighter than most. “We are a nation built on the rule of the law,” Obama said. “We need to accept this was a decision that was the grand jury’s to make.”
The police, he said, “put their lives on the line for us every single day.”
If anything, Obama tried to stay too above the fray, perhaps not giving enough heed to the anger raging in African-American communities in Missouri and elsewhere. At one point, Obama seemed to dismiss the violent protests as just cable-news-driven sensationalism, saying the tumult would “make for good TV.”
But in truth, there was little that Obama, or anyone in his position, could do. The tension had been building for days—and few on the streets were paying any attention to the president. Just minutes after he spoke, there were unconfirmed reports of tear gas being used, of police cars being turned over and burned. That was followed by looting. Obama had tried to strike a hopeful, encouraging chord, but it felt almost too optimistic—and was all but drowned out by the din. He noted that Americans had made “enormous progress in race relations,” adding that, “I have witnessed that in my own life and to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.”
And speaking to the aggrieved in Ferguson, he said, “But what is also true is that there are still problems and that communities of color aren’t just making those problems up.”
It was a perfect example of Obama’s on-one-hand-and-on-the-other style, but it also showed his limits, both the ones imposed by his office and the ones he’s imposed on himself. Possibly, when the smoke clears Tuesday, his words will gain new resonance. As to whether Obama himself will travel to Ferguson to make another appeal for restraint, he was noncommittal.
“Let’s take a look and see how things are going,” he said in response to a question. If he was watching television after his remarks, he could see that for himself. And things weren’t going very well.