Obama’s Michael Brown Address: I Won’t Do Stupid Things

The sense of disappointment among many progressive pundits yesterday, particularly denizens of the twitterverse, to what they viewed as President Obama’s tepid remarks  on the Michael Brown killing was palpable. Rather than attempting to condemn the actions of the white police officer who shot Brown, or to place Brown’s death in the larger context of police shootings of black men and race relations more generally, the President gave a decidedly more measured response, stressing the need to maintain the peace in Ferguson while the facts are gathered. Perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway from the press conference is that he is sending Attorney General Eric Holder to Missouri.

Needless to say, this was not the response many progressives wanted to hear, and they weren’t shy about making their disappointment known, as this sampling from my twitter feed and other sources indicates:

“Barack Obama is either very tired, doesn’t believe a single word he’s saying re: Michael Brown, or both.”

And this:

“The suggestion that My Brother’s Keeper could have helped save Michael Brown is ludicrous to the point of being willfully ignorant.”

And this:

“Barack Hussein Cosby”.

Ouch. And when asked whether he would personally travel to Ferguson, instead of a dramatic version of Eisenhower’s “I shall go to Korea”  the president was noncommittal, prompting twitter responses like this:

“Even Bush didn’t take this long to get down to Katrina. Jesus.”

In trying to explain the President’s failure to take a more strident stand, some progressives defended him by suggesting he was likely hiding his true views in order to avoid inflaming an already unstable situation. Ezra Klein’s take is not uncharacteristic of this perspective: “The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had ‘acted stupidly’ when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce.”

Maybe. But here’s a radical thought. Perhaps there’s another explanation for the President’s muted response – one that is admittedly more outlandish than what progressive pundits would have us believe: it’s that the President actually meant what he said yesterday. Maybe – just maybe – he really does want to wait until all the facts are in, rather than following the Twitterverse into a headlong rush to judgment. Maybe he understands that the circumstances surrounding this incident may not be as black and white as the armchair analysts twitting their views from their computers thousands of miles from the scene of the shooting would have one think. Maybe he sincerely believes that the best way to defuse the tension is to let the investigation run its course, rather than trying to force facts and rumors of facts into a pre-existing framework of analysis designed to confirm what some pundits are certain happened.

Shocking, I know. But, as I have argued from day one of Obama’s time in office, this pragmatic, show-me-the-facts – dare I say “moderate”? – take on the presidency is exactly what we – progressives included – should have expected from Obama, based on his prior history. And it is entirely consistent with a President whose operating mantra is captured in the phrase “don’t do stupid things.”  Yes, there may yet be a time for the President to reprise his stirring 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention – “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America” – or to echo the theme of racial harmony that characterized his Reverend Wright condemnation speech – “As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.” But those speeches were made by a man who dreamed of becoming president and they were, in large part, designed to further that goal. As President, however, Obama no longer has the luxury to be quite so self-indulgent. Yes, there may come the moment when he can use the Michael Brown tragedy as an opportunity to talk about race relations, civil rights, police shootings and the myriad other issues that progressives wish Obama had addressed yesterday. But as President he has evidently concluded that this moment is not now. Some find this disappointing. Others, however, may interpret the President’s reticence as a sign of true leadership.

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  1. I have a lot of friends who are really disappointed as well, and have expressed their displeasure. And, while I’m a bit let down by his measured take, I wasn’t really that surprised. The progressive community still has some high expectations for him to take a certain perspective in his leadership as the first African American President – without always acknowledging his actual personality. I hope the moment comes though. As always, I appreciate your take.

  2. Tarsi,

    Well, timing in politics, as in life, is often nearly everything. While I understand the desire to see the first African-American president more directly address issues of civil rights and race in the context of the Brown shooting, I’m not sure he thinks this is the appropriate time to do so. But I suspect he will delve more deeply into the topic after the findings are in (and probably after the midterms!)

  3. Matt, While the Brown story is being kept on life support by the news media. There is other news that needs some attention.

    The president was “presidential” in his remarks. We are still a government of laws.

    The Brown story is important; more so than the Martin story. But there is no balance here in reporting or editing. The media makes things worse, not better. Obama should be praised for trying to bring Brown into a balance – bringing Brown into perspective.

    And yes, there is still a lot of racism in the US that the media is exploiting, especially on NBC.

  4. THANK YOU for a well thought out article. I remember a few years back a reporter asked the President why it took him so long to respond to something and he angrily responded with “Because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak”. I want a President to know what he’s talking about before he passes judgement, that is his job.

    We could all do that. A young unarmed man is dead, serious questions need to be answered because this is a tragedy regardless of circumstances. It also appears from what I hear on TV many people say that the protests are not about this one incident but an ongoing issue of poor treatment towards minorities by police in that area. But again… I DON’T know for sure.

    One thing I don’t hear anybody asking. Why are so many cops working alone now? It seems to me that by having so many police officers working alone these days they are being forced to confront people alone and that is a recipe for disaster. Two cops together might be less inclined to shoot a person and more likely to try and subdue someone with other means.

    And yet people try to discuss this complex issue on Twitter? Can you imagine if that’s the way the court system worked? Tell me what happened on that day in 140 characters or less?

  5. Obama cannot win. Like a lot of people, he knows that this conversation is no longer about progress – it’s about retribution. The fact that he is waiting for all of the info to come out shows that he is being presidential during a very tough time. I have my disagreements with him on a lot of things, but there are people out there saying he doesn’t ‘get it’ because he is half white. smh

  6. Jack,

    By NBC, I take it you mean the cable version (MSNBC)? I confess I’ve avoided the cable coverage for exactly the reasons you cite – the twitter comments have been bad enough, although that may reflect the particular feeds I’ve subscribed to. One disturbing aspect of much of the media coverage, it seems to me, is to make it harder to proceed with legal action, if that in fact turns out to be the next step. Any defendant is going to claim they couldn’t possibly get a fair trial.

    Still, I don’t want to tar and feather the entire media industry – many reporters, I’m sure, are doing their best to get the full story out there without prejudging events or unnecessarily making themselves part of the story. But it’s hard to disentangle the solid news reporting from the sensationalized coverage.

  7. Excellent article. Obama has shown that he has learned from his earlier rushes to judgment. His caution is admirable and deserves this kind of close analysis.

  8. Thanks Jack. It’s getting a thumbs up by the twits in the twitterverse as well. However, we are still tweaking the site – we may adjust the banner a bit. Stay tuned, and keep those comments and suggestions coming!

  9. Derek,

    As I noted in my response to Jack, it baffles me that so many progressives have weighed in on this case without seeming to care about what this might do to subsequent legal efforts to prosecute someone – if it comes to that.

  10. Jack Goodman is suggesting the proper approach……..a policeman shot someone….but we do not know why….IT IS POSSIBLE that it was done with proper cause, legally….maybe yes and maybe no….but that is what Courts are all about in the USA….Obama would be wrong in going to the scene of this shooting…. I do not use the word crime because what the policeman did may or may not be found to be a crime (ie. Self Defense?????) I say all of the above not because I am Pro Police…hardly…if you know me, you know what I just said is the truth….matters such as this should not be decided on raw emotion, but rather as in almost every shooting resulting in death, by the Facts….and it takes a while for them to come out. If the policeman is ultimately found guilty, he should be sentenced as in any other case of wrong criminal actions….time will tell

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