As the tumultuous situation in Ferguson, Missouri, entered its second week, President Obama stood before the nation and offered a mild, balanced plea.
There is “no excuse” for excessive use of deadly force by police, he observed at a Monday news conference; the family of Michael Brown, gunned down by a white officer under suspicious circumstances, deserves justice. But violent protests “undermine” that cause. Americans should “unite with each other and understand each other,” “listen and not just shout.”
If Obama’s words were anodyne, his affect was somber and subdued. In a nation roiling with anger, fear and confusion, the president alone appeared unfazed.
To which I say: Good for him.
One thing that’s not in short supply in America right at the moment is emotional rhetoric. The airwaves and newspapers and Twitter feeds are thick with it, in case you haven’t noticed. Therefore, it’s not immediately clear what purpose would be served by presidential venting, especially in the midst of a bitter off-year election campaign, when his every word is bound to be politicized and polarized.
Others disagree. They want Obama to raise his voice, to speak from his heart and from his experience as an African American, the first to occupy the White House.
MSNBC’s Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University, reproaches the president for not using his “bully pulpit” to “tell us as a nation what happens when festering rage in a community then begins to ignite and then begins to consume not only that community but the people around the nation who are empathetic.”
Maureen Dowd of the New York Times says Obama has gone from “hot commodity to wet blanket” and demands to know why he won’t “stop going to Beverly Hills to raise money and go to St. Louis to raise consciousness.”
What distinguishes Obama from these critics, of course, is that he has actual responsibilities, of which the most pressing are to keep a highly dangerous situation from getting any worse and to supervise an impartial investigation of the horrific event that led up to it. If he were to deliver the lecture Dyson recommends, or hold a consciousness-raising session — whatever that is — in St. Louis, he might put both objectives at risk, as he succinctly explained Monday.
Having assigned the Justice Department to look into the case, he said, “I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.”
Obama’s swift mobilization of Justice was appropriate. Founded in 1870 for the purpose of protecting Southern blacks during Reconstruction, the department also played a crucial role in civil rights struggles during the 1960s.
Under Eric Holder, the department has stepped up civil rights enforcement generally and supervision of local police in particular. In terms of practical effect, putting DOJ on the case is worth 1,000 speeches.
By the way, if Obama’s eloquence really did have the power to solve real-world problems, we might not be facing this sickening mess in Ferguson to begin with, given how often the president has addressed America’s troubled race relations already.
You might say the same for the Middle East, where Obama’s lofty verbal outreach to “the Muslim world” has given way to airstrikes against a monstrous Islamist insurgency in Iraq.
To some extent, Obama has himself to blame for the latest criticism of his leadership. He has encouraged magical thinking about his presidency — from the day he launched his candidacy on a vague promise of hope and change to his recent promises of “executive action” on a host of issues from immigration to taxes. Indeed, given that history, there is a certain poignancy in the pleas from his supporters for a dose of the old charisma now.
Uncharismatic though it may be, his response so far to Ferguson is perfectly presidential. In fact, his cautious rhetoric may be a sign that he is coming to a more seasoned understanding of the “bully pulpit” and its limitations.
When it comes to events like the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent violence in Ferguson, words fail. This time, we might have to settle for action.
Charles Lane is a writer for The Washington Post.