Why Won't Obama Go to Ferguson?

The president seems increasingly uncomfortable with the role of healer-in-chief. What happened to that hopeful, eloquent man we elected in 2008?

Win McNamee/Getty

When President Obama finally came off the Vineyard and spoke out on the trauma that has transfixed America, he looked exhausted. In line with the “Do I really have to do this” tone that is increasingly his public persona, the president’s words seemed to make no one happy.

If a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard takes this much out of you, it’s clear why John Kerry sticks to Nantucket.

It’s tempting to pile on the president, but I’m sympathetic to his apparent hesitancy to grandstand at this terrible moment. Ferguson strikes me as an instance where it is far easier to do harm than to help.

But I think there is a valuable “teaching moment,” to borrow his phrase, in watching our first African-American president struggle with this racial tragedy. While there seems to be no data to suggest that race relations have improved under Obama—and perhaps they’ve gotten worse—I think the Ferguson crisis is a time when we are well served by having an African-American president in office.

If what is happening in Missouri had occurred under President Bush and Attorney General (and former Missouri governor) John Ashcroft, it’s inevitable that they would have been heavily criticized, and that there would have been a racial component to that criticism. It would have been all but impossible to avoid accusations that the anger among those in the streets of Ferguson was greatly increased by an out-of-touch white White House. Pundits would have weighed in “that as long as the powers that be in this country are white, it’s impossible for an African American not to feel isolated and alienated.”

And who knows, perhaps there would have been validity in some of that criticism. Having spent my life with presidents who looked like me, who am I to say what it must be like to be unable to imagine a president of one’s own race?

But on Monday, that was an African-American president at the White House podium who was announcing that his African-American attorney general would oversee the case. If nothing else, it forces us to move the discussion to more troubling issues than a solution afforded by who might win the next election.

I know a lot of Republicans and conservatives who were terribly sorry that John McCain lost but still felt better about America that an African American could win the presidency. Race was an essential element of the Obama narrative launched in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech. “My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation,” he declared, looking so young. “They would give me an African name, Barack, or ‘blessed,’ believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.”

That was the Barack Obama so many Americans fell in love with, a man who seemed to promise that if we could elect someone who described his very presence on the Democratic Convention stage as “pretty unlikely,” perhaps we could move beyond the past. Maybe it was that lost promise weighing on Obama as he spoke of Michael Brown, the exuberance of possibility faded into dispiriting reality.

Six years into the Obama presidency, it’s still true that no problem confounds America like black-white relations. In the country that defines itself by an assumption that no challenge is beyond our grasp, the quest for a post-racial society is like the elusive cure for an ever-transmuting disease. Great effort and time has produced grudging improvements in quality of life, but the sickness defies a cure. It is always there, ready to strike without warning.

Could Obama have done more to help heal the trauma of Brown’s death? He’s played a healing role well in the past. If the president had stepped in early and reassured the Brown family, Ferguson, and the world that a fair and impartial investigation was under way, it is difficult to imagine it not helping. That would have required putting his personal credibility on the line as president and, yes, as our first African-American president.

But clearly this president is uncomfortable in this role. For a political leader propelled to the heights by his ability to speak of race in transforming terms, he seems to have lost faith in his own voice.

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There are 40-plus FBI agents working the Michael Brown case. As the son of a former FBI agent, I’ll choose to believe eventually there will come more clarity to those terrible few minutes. For all the talk of high-tech military gear, this began like a scene from long ago: two men, one pistol, six shots. One body. An American tragedy we know too well.