Why President Obama shouldn’t go to Ferguson

The Missouri National Guard rolls into Ferguson, Mo., but stays back as protesters again tangle with police, who respond with tear gas. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

On Monday, ABC's Ann Compton asked President Obama whether he would visit Ferguson, Mo., amid the continued unrest. Obama didn't give a firm answer, but he did suggest it's probably not a good idea.

"When they’re conducting an investigation, 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," he said.

And for now, that's probably the right call.

As with everything Ferguson, there are no easy answers. But at this juncture, it's pretty clear Obama's presence would be a very risky political move.

Obama has studiously avoided taking sides in the matter, offering little more than general comments and urging peaceful demonstrations. He did announce Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder would visit the area Wednesday as the Justice Department investigates the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer 10 days ago. But the White House has made clear that state and local officials are in charge.

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For Obama, visiting Ferguson would seem, on its surface, to be a good way to calm tensions. But as Obama himself suggested Monday, he can't really do that without looking like he's taking sides. And that's about the worst thing he could do for the situation in Ferguson -- and nationwide.

As we wrote Monday, the issue is already proving to be racially and politically polarizing -- much like the Trayvon Martin case -- with African Americans and Democrats much more skeptical of the police and the investigation and much more likely to believe race was a factor in what happened. Whites and Republicans see the situation in a far, far different light.

So when a polarizing African American Democratic president shows up, it's pretty much unavoidable that it would be seen as a nod to the protesters and their cause.

The White House has been very careful to avoid such a nod. Obama said Monday that they "may have some legitimate grievances," but that's about as far as he's gone. This is because they know even one wayward comment could confirm most people's natural suspicions about which side he agrees with.

Obama found that out the hard way when he made some off-hand comments critical of the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009 and -- to a lesser extent -- when he suggested his son would look like Martin.

We've already seen a lot of nastiness on both sides of the debate over Ferguson. Obama visiting the city might defuse some of the local tensions, but it would probably only exacerbate what is already a very heated national debate.

Things are serious in Ferguson -- as the arrests (including journalists), the tear gas, the violence and the rhetoric demonstrate -- but the temptation to believe an American president can simply show up and put a stop to all of it is far too simple.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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