Obama’s Split-Screen Appeal Lost in Ferguson’s Anger

National Journal
James Oliphant
Nov. 24, 2014, 6:02 p.m.

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.