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Obama urges country to do ‘soul searching’ in wake of Baltimore riots

During a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Obama delivered remarks on the violence in Baltimore following the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal injury while in police custody. The president said violent protesters should be "treated as criminals," but also called positive attention to the peaceful demonstrators. (Video:

President Obama made an impassioned call Tuesday for Americans to do "some soul searching" in the wake of this week's rioting in Baltimore, arguing the U.S. has faced "a slow-rolling crisis" over race and economic opportunity in urban areas.

Speaking during a Rose Garden press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the president gave a seven-point answer in response to a question of what he and his government should do to response to ongoing tensions between police officers and communities of color.

Obama sharply condemned the rioters for damaging private property and taking items from local stores: "They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing."

[READ: Live updates: Riots in Baltimore]

But he also directed his criticism toward Americans--including the news media and some politicians--for failing to address the chronic problems of men, women and children who live in poverty and find their opportunities limited because of poor schools or long stints in prison.

"This has been a slow-rolling crisis," he said. "This is not new... We, as a country, have to do some soul searching."

Obama emphasized he was under no illusions that the policy measures he hoped would make a difference in these people's lives--including expanded early-childhood education and criminal justice reform--would make it into law easily. He noted that he favors those kinds of social justice measures, "But that kind of political mobilization, I don’t think we’ve seen for some time."

"But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could," he said. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant,and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped."

"It’s easy to ignore those problems," Obama added.

The president's extensive comments marked a sharp departure from Monday, when White House spokesman Josh Earnest called tensions between police and communities around the country "fundamentally a local issue" and said that "there does need to be a commitment from local elected leaders and local law enforcement leaders to confront this challenge and to demonstrate some determination about trying to build bridges with the citizens that they're sworn to protect."

"Ultimately," he said after another question, "this is a problem that the federal government is not going to be able to solve."

By dawn on Tuesday, the issue didn't seem so local. The National Guard had been mobilized overnight to help an overwhelmed police force deal with protesters, looters, arsonists and rock throwers wreaking havoc in a city on President Obama's doorstep -- a city run by a black mayor, a black police chief, and a black city council president. In Baltimore, at least, bridges between local leaders and citizens of the sort that Earnest spoke of had been largely burned down.

[READ: Why Baltimore was destined to explode.]

As violence spread Monday afternoon and into the night, the president remained silent. Obama, the nation's community organizer in chief, had put the problem onto community leaders. In the early evening, after he met with his new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, the White House put out a short statement saying that during a phone conversation with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), "the president highlighted the administration's commitment to provide assistance as needed."

The White House said that the president, who also spoke to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Monday, would receive updates from Lynch and his aide Valerie Jarrett.

Lynch has no plans to go to Baltimore, according to Justice Department officials, though she has asked the head of the agency's civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, and Ronald L. Davis, who directs its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office.

Should Obama have said more? Could he have done anything that would have altered the course of events?

He is expected to say more Tuesday at a previously scheduled joint news briefing at noon with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

For Obama, there is a certain sense of déjà vu as Baltimore struggles with the aftermath of another death of a black man, apparently at the hands of police and seemingly without any crime having been committed.

[READ: After night of rioting in Baltimore, fear of violence]

Many critics believe Obama did not show enough passion or persuasion to connect with or restrain angry African Americans after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Instead, Obama sounded calls for restraint, lawful demonstrations, commissions of inquiry and slow, steady progress toward reform.

"It's not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take -- too angry? not angry enough? -- when discussing the enormous hardships facing his or her constituents," Obama wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope," published in 2006.

Nine years later, he and other African American leaders are still trying to answer that question.

In the case of the shooting in Ferguson, the president could not simply condemn the system as many civil rights leaders did in the 1960s; he sits on top of that system. So after the Ferguson incident, he praised police in general while calling for reforms to avoid a repeat of the shooting of an unarmed black youth.

[Michael Brown’s family files wrongful death lawsuit against Ferguson]

"To the extent that the federal government can be supportive of local law enforcement officers as they consider some of the best practices that have been compiled by the task force, we're going to encourage them to do that," Earnest said Monday.

That made no impact in Baltimore, though. There, African American leaders from Obama to the congressman to the local police chief face a problem of class as well as race. Much of the rioting in Baltimore appeared to have been done in poorer parts of the city by economically disenfranchised residents, those who could feel empowered only through acts of violence.

Moreover, there was no shortage of respected black leaders in Baltimore calling for restraint, from the funeral of Freddie Gray early in the day through the early evening.

"The people I saw on the street ignored the pleas of the Gray family," said Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore and former Baltimore mayor. "Those who participated were opportunists who took advantage of a defensive and reactive posture that they knew our police department had to assume."

Many local leaders accepted the president's posture of restraint and remained focused on the issue of police abuse.

"The federal government can be a partner with local government on this issue, but the federal government can't lead the effort,"Schmoke said. He said the federal U.S. attorneys and civil rights division of the Justice Department could prosecute cases of police violence, and the federal mediation service could bring warring segments of the community together.

But, he added, "it's local community leaders that have to resolve this problem through better recruiting and training of police officers and by hiring chiefs of police who will recruit officers in the spirit of service, not the spirit of adventure."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at the funeral Monday morning, said that the violence wasn't just a local issue alone. "I think that it highlights the need and opportunity to address urban policy," he said in an interview, citing what he said were Baltimore's 18,000 abandoned homes and its 30 percent black unemployment rate. "Where is the HUD plan, or the Department of Labor job skills programs, and mobile health units and education? Baltimore would be a great model for the urban policy challenge for our nation."

He said Obama had made some efforts in these areas, but in many instances was blocked by congressional Republicans.

Asked whether Obama should have said more Monday, Jackson said that African American leaders in Baltimore had been counting on the appeal made by the family of Freddie Gray to keep the peace. "We were hoping against hope that the appeal by the family would have stood longer and [violence] would subside, but that didn’t happen."

By Tuesday afternoon, it seemed clear to many that the president needed to convey what he thought about the situation. At two separate points during his comments, Obama apologized to Abe to devoting so much time to addressing what might appear to outsiders as a parochial issue.

"That was a really long answer," he said at the conclusion of his remarks, "but I felt pretty strongly about it."

Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.