Obama Bites His Tongue On Ferguson

Last night, Beutler called on the president to give a big speech on Ferguson:

This is Obama’s first opportunity (for lack of a better word) to use the bully pulpit to steer the national agenda in a positive direction since the slaughter at Newtown, Connecticut, and it’s the first time since he became a national figure that he’ll be able to address a racially charged issue without an election in his future to deter him.

But the statement Obama delivered last night, as Cillizza remarks, “was almost doomed from the start”:

The combination of Obama’s status as the nation’s first black president and the powerful visuals coming out of Ferguson, which are catnip for cable TV, made it a) absolutely necessary that he speak about Ferguson on Monday night and b) absolutely inevitable that whatever he said would be criticized by almost everyone emotionally invested in the story — and outrun by events on the ground that were being broadcast simultaneously with his remarks.

That sort of lose-lose proposition is increasingly becoming a hallmark of the modern presidency.

How Ezra understands Obama’s dilemma:

Obama’s language didn’t soar tonight, just as it didn’t soar in his first set of remarks on Ferguson. And that’s because Obama can manage polarization on immigration in a way he can’t manage polarization on race.

President Obama might still decide to give a major speech about events in Ferguson. But it probably won’t be the speech many of his supporters want.When Obama gave the first Race Speech he was a unifying figure trying to win the Democratic nomination. Today he’s a divisive figure who needs to govern the whole country. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.

Jesse Walker questions whether such speeches matter:

I watched an Obama speech tonight. The cable channels aired it in a split screen with footage from Ferguson, so as the president urged calm I could see a live feed of the country ignoring him. His comments were predictable and bland, but even if he’d given us the most stirring rhetoric of his career I can’t imagine that it would have made much difference. This is the news, not The West Wing. Words are cheap.

Julia Azari considers the purpose of presidential speeches:

There are a number of perspectives on crisis rhetoric and on the purposes of presidential speech, but one idea that drives at many of the key points is communication scholar David Zarefsky’s argument that presidential rhetoric has the power to “define political reality.” To quickly synthesize Zarefsky’s point with other work on presidential communication (including my own), this kind of communication has a few main purposes. These include putting a political situation in the context of the past, particularly our Constitutional heritage, and applying a useful and resonant metaphor to the situation that allows us to understand what caused the problem and what kinds of solutions are available. In other words, presidential speech can provide a common text for all citizens to understand a situation, and provide a sense of what the policy alternatives are, even if agreement among them remains elusive.

This is a tremendously difficult task. When non-white human beings have been historically denied full citizenship, how does anyone begin to forge a common understanding of an event that rings true across racial and ethnic lines? How can anyone transcend the polarized state of American politics?