The president of the United States has awesome powers and responsibilities. But being a superhero is not one of them. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to those demanding that President Obama do all sorts of questionable things in response to the tumult over the police killing of Michael Brown. They want Obama to act out in some visceral way. They want more emotion from him on the horrible actions in and images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. They just want him to do something. All the while completely ignoring what he’s actually doing, what he actually can do and what he is actually capable of doing.
“It is painfully apparent, for those who still hold out hope, that President Barack Obama will never use the full power and influence of his office to come to the aid of African Americans while he is president,” Hiram College political science professor Jason Johnson wrote at Ebony.com. My MSNBC colleague Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University, said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “[W]e need presidential leadership. He needs to step up to the plate and be responsible.” Even music impresario P. Diddy had something to say. “Obama — for real — get on a plane,” he said in a video on his Instagram page. “These are your people. It’s serious baby.”
Yes, it is serious.
White House officials tell me that personnel from the Department of Justice’s community relations service arrived in Ferguson on Aug. 10, the day after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown. The level of attention has only ratcheted up from there. DOJ is conducting its own parallel federal investigation. FBI agents swarmed Ferguson over the weekend. A third autopsy of Brown’s body conducted by the federal government was done yesterday. Holder will be in Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with federal investigators and prosecutors. In an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch released late Tuesday afternoon, Holder writes, “At a time when so much may seem uncertain, the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn — in a fair and thorough manner — exactly what happened.” The attorney general is appointed by the president. Holder’s travel to Missouri, the op-ed and everything DOJ is doing no doubt has the blessing of Obama.
Because of the ongoing investigation the last thing anyone should want is for the president to be rhetorically reckless in talking about the police killing of Michael Brown. Remember what happened the last time he talked about police action involving an African American man? Some said he was the one who “acted stupidly” in commenting at all on the arrest of Harvard law professor Henry Louis Gates at his own home in 2009. That being said, Obama has neither been silent on nor disengaged from what’s happening in Ferguson.
The president offered condolences and called for calm in a written statement on Aug. 12. On Aug. 14, he went before the cameras to decry the previous night’s horrific showdown, appeal for calm and remind Americans that he had “already tasked the Department of Justice and the FBI to independently investigate the death of Michael Brown. On Aug. 18, the president not only spoke from the White House about the latest in Ferguson, but he also took questions from the press, which allowed him to speak more fully about his thoughts on what’s happening there. This is in addition to the near-constant briefings from Holder and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and his calls with Gov. Jay Nixon (D).
But folks want more.
After six years in office, we know the president is incapable of delivering the rage so many people seem desperate to see from him. It’s just not who he is. To continue to demand it of him is a useless exercise. And deep in his second term, we know the president is no fan of the theater of politics, especially needless theatrics that might make people feel good in the short-term, but do nothing to advance a greater cause or achieve a worthwhile mission in the long run.
For instance, Johnson at Hiram College suggested that Obama should have come to the podium with proposed restrictions on the Pentagon’s 1033 program that has flooded local law enforcement with war gear. Asking for such is not unreasonable. Even the president said yesterday that the funding should be reviewed and believes there will be “bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs.” But demanding revisions and proposals right this very minute when Congress isn’t back in session until next month — and only for 10 days — is needless theatrics that will do nothing to demilitarize local police right this very minute.
Throughout his presidency, some African Americans have called on Obama to do more to show he cares about the black community. Or as one headline put it, “Still waiting for our first black president.” My response then is the same now: stop waiting for and start paying attention to our first black president. As I wrote then, some folks won’t be satisfied, it seems, until he bursts into the East Room clad in Kente cloth and brandishing a definable “black agenda”or whatever else so many blacks seem to want from him to prove that he cares.
Obama cares. Deeply. But if you’re expecting him to do seemingly heroic and showy things that make you feel good but do nothing to actually fix big, systemic problems in the long-term you will never be satisfied. And to demand that he do so in light of the information void out of Ferguson is foolish. All the energy being used to harangue the president should be directed at officials in Ferguson and St. Louis County who have refused to release key documents in the case. Why haven’t they released the first autopsy of Michael Brown? Or Ferguson Police Report #2014-12391? Or St. Louis County Police Report #2014-43984?
Once those are released then we can talk seriously about what Obama can and should do.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj