Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to remarks by President Obama “after the 2013 Trayvon Martin killing.” It should have said “after the 2013 Trayvon Martin verdict.” The following version has been updated.
After a week of Ferguson protests that have roiled the country, President Obama on Monday did what he generally does in times of crisis: He had a meeting.
Actually, he had three of them, all behind closed doors. He met with his Cabinet. He met with civil rights leaders. He met with law enforcement officials and community and faith leaders. And when all the chin-wags and palavers were done, Obama invited the cameras into the room and announced that he had decided . . . to talk some more. He created a task force to spend 90 days studying police “best practices.”
The grand-jury decision not to charge the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Missouri has given Obama another opportunity to show strong and decisive presidential leadership. And, once again, Obama is using the bully pulpit like a 98-pound weakling. If any more chin-stroking goes on at this White House, the president’s advisers are going to have chafe marks on their jawbones.
It’s no surprise that Obama’s passive approach is not playing well. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that only 39 percent of the public approves of Obama’s handling of Ferguson; even black support for Obama’s Ferguson performance, at 63 percent, is far below African Americans’ overall support for the president.
Democratic lawmakers have privately expressed their wish that Obama go to Ferguson. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, preaching in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, said Obama should go to Ferguson, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Obama ally Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts governor, said on NBC that Obama “wants to go” to Ferguson but faces a “quandary” because of an ongoing Justice Department investigation.
So is Obama going to Ferguson? “No specific plans,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest replied Monday when the question, the first of the briefing, was put to him by the Associated Press’s Jim Kuhnhenn.
This was no change from last week, when Obama, asked the same question by CNN’s Jim Acosta, said he’d “take a look and see how things are going.”
They’re not going well, and Obama, by going to Ferguson and talking about Ferguson elsewhere around the country, could start the conversation about race we always talk about but never seem to have. The nation’s first black president is in a unique position to quell protests, but also to give voice to legitimate grievances about the justice system.
Even if he’s determined to avoid Ferguson, Obama could offer more concrete solutions to the problem than he has. To start with, there’s no way to know how big the problem of police shootings is and how closely it’s tied to race, because, incredibly, there’s no federal requirement that jurisdictions report police shootings and killings. The FBI just reported that 461 people were killed by police in “justifiable homicides” in 2013, but that dramatically understates the tally, according to those who have tried to track the killings.
Brian Burghart, who runs the Reno News & Review, launched a project called “Fatal Encounters.” His group believes it has identified more than 16,000 records of officer-involved homicides since 2000. Another group, Killed by Police, claims there have been at least 1,011 this year alone — 346 since Michael Brown’s death this summer.
Obama also backed off Monday on proposals to restrict transfers of military equipment to local police. In August, the president had said there is a “big difference” between the two, “and we don’t want those lines blurred.” But the administration decided against new restrictions, instead announcing more modest plans to track the transfers and to increase police training and use of body-worn cameras.
To take a bolder stand on healing racial divisions would be easy for Obama, both because it doesn’t require cooperation from Congress and because he already knows the words. He has often spoken eloquently on the topic — during the 2008 controversy caused by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after the 2013 Trayvon Martin verdict and again, briefly, after the Ferguson decision was announced a week ago.
But on this issue as on many others — notably the fight against the Islamic State and the need to find a new defense secretary — Obama has demonstrated a preference to mull rather than to act. Former Obama Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, in his memoir, wrote that Obama too often “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
As it happens, on the same day Obama was naming his task force to ponder policing issues further (he promised this time would be “different” from all those previous commissions and task forces), the Brookings Institution hosted former Obama aide Peter Orszag and others for a discussion in support of Obama’s efforts to use “evidence-based policymaking” and his “fight for rigor and results in social policy.”
Over time, such a cerebral process probably produces the best results. But crises don’t wait for cogitation. In the long run, as the great thinker John Maynard Keynes noted, we are all dead.