It was a night of split screens.
Even as St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch was wrapping up a nearly hour-long recitation of the events surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. -- and the decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson -- the White House briefing room was being made ready for President Obama to deliver a statement about exactly what McCulloch was announcing.
And then, once Obama began to speak, cable networks used split screens to show images of the growing violence in Ferguson -- a decided contrast to Obama's call for peaceful protest in the wake of the grand jury's decision. (Obama acknowledged the split screens in his remarks, saying,"There is inevitably going to be some negative reaction, and it will make for good TV.")
Obama's decision to appear publicly so quickly after the grand jury's decision was announced, and in the midst of what he almost certainly knew would be scenes of protest in the streets of Ferguson, was an interesting one -- particularly given his past caution in his public remarks about Ferguson and race issues affecting the country more broadly.
Remember that Brown was killed on Aug. 9 and that protests regarding the circumstances surrounding his death began almost immediately. Three days later, Obama issued a statement extending his "deepest condolences" to Brown's family. It wasn't until nine days after Brown's death that Obama publicly addressed the incident, on Aug. 18. In that news conference, he was decidedly measured -- a stance that bothered some activists who wanted him to go further in Brown's defense than he was willing to go.
Obama's decision to speak on the heels of the McCulloch news conference reflected the realities on the ground and his status as the country's first African American president, White House allies said. Not speaking would have cast him as an absentee president at a time when many people think he is uniquely positioned to speak to both sides of the divide over Ferguson. (Polling conducted in the run-up to the grand jury decision showed that opinion about what should be done with Darren Wilson was heavily bifurcated along racial lines.)
And yet, Obama's statement was almost doomed from the start. (Side note: I tweeted at the time, and believe now, that he did a very credible job in a tough spot.) Obama's goal was clearly to do everything in his power to project a calm demeanor, a physical embodiment of the restraint he was urging those in Ferguson to exercise. He was also rhetorically careful to bow to the fact that "we are nation built on the rule of law" while acknowledging that "in too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color."
It was, by design, a broad and largely anodyne response, the sort of rhetoric that stood at stark odds with the images of tear gas, cars on fire and upset in Ferguson being broadcast side by side with his remarks. Some who were deeply angered by the Wilson decision called on Obama to show more emotion, to suggest a shared bond between his life and that of Brown. (Obama did that -- to much controversy -- when he suggested that a Florida boyh named Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a neighborhood watch commander, "could have been my son.") Others insisted that Obama should have been more forceful in condemning the increasingly violent protests in Ferguson.
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.