As protests against the decision of a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with the murder of Michael Brown continue, the White House is scrambling to catch up with President Obama’s liberal base. With the political left out in the streets and screaming murder on the cable networks, the president felt the need to play catchup today on Ferguson and to speak as if a difficult legal case can be used to justify politicized charges claiming that America’s police are out of control and targeting black youth with impunity. His response, a White House meeting and a raft of meaningless though potentially expensive proposals, may be enough to help him win today’s news cycle. But let no one, least of all the president’s media cheering section, pretend that what we are hearing today is anything more than an illustration of a basic political precept: it’s better to pretend to do something about a marginal problem than to tell those protesting that it is their skewed perceptions that are wrong.
As I wrote earlier today, after spending so much of the last six years crying wolf about racism and seeking to stoke fears rather than to heal, the president is in no position to reclaim the high ground on the issue that he occupied when he was elected by deliberately eschewing appeals to partisanship and race. Nor does it speak well for the president that he felt the need to, in essence, backtrack from the sagacious stand he took last week when the grand jury in St. Louis County decided no crime had been committed when Wilson shot Brown. Having told Americans to respect a judicial process and to refrain from riots and violence to vent their disappointment in the result of the proceeding, today he reverted to playing the race card, albeit in more measured terms than his fans on the left.
It is true that many African-Americans don’t trust the police and that racism isn’t dead. But by accepting the premise of the Ferguson rioters that somehow the lack of an indictment is proof that the system isn’t working, Obama wasn’t advancing the cause of healing. Even more to the point, by focusing all of his attention on alleged police misbehavior, the president was ignoring the fact that what African-Americans trapped in poor neighborhoods need most is more policing, not less.
As for the president’s suggestions, they speak volumes about how insubstantial the White House’s approach has become. The president said he would seek to impose more restrictions on the transfer of military-style equipment—like the ones deployed in Ferguson when the trouble began this summer—as well as spending money on body cameras for police, presumably to ensure that those wearing the devices would be caught red-handed if they mistreated civilians.
Let’s specify that there is a reasonable discussion that can be heard about the utility of such equipment in most local police problems. There are also arguments to be made in favor of applying the same sort of technology that has brought cameras to many police cars to the bodies of officers. Police may benefit as much from the scrutiny as they will be hurt by it.
But let’s not pretend that this is about better policing or bridging the racial divide. The president could cite no studies pointing to the need for any of his measures nor could he argue credibly that a White House photo op was anything but what he denied it to be: a dog and pony show intended only to demonstrate a faux interest in an issue that would soon be forgotten as soon as the media and left-wing demonstrators move on from Ferguson to whatever the next media feeding frenzy turns out to be.
Nor should we be impressed by the noises about a possible presidential visit to Ferguson or any other measure intended to make it seem as if Obama is doing something about the issue.
The problem here is not just that Obama punted on his chance to be a genuine racial healer years ago as he egged on his supporters to brand his critics as racists rather than just Americans who disagreed with his policies. It’s that by putting forward a faux program intended to make it look as if he is doing something, he has again made the problem worse rather than better.
It is no small irony that the administration run by the first African-American president and staffed by the first African-American attorney general has done so much to stoke racial disharmony and to empower race baiters like Obama ally Al Sharpton. By validating those who are determined to perpetuate the myth that the Ferguson incident was about a vicious white cop who killed an innocent black kid with his hands up—a proposition that the evidence presented to the grand jury appears to debunk—the president has ensured that his time in office will continue to witness a further deterioration of relations between blacks and whites.
President Obama isn’t solely responsible for this. But he could have used his bully pulpit to steer the national conversation in a more rational manner in ways that might have helped more than it hurt. White House dog and pony shows have their uses at times, but today’s version was evidence of how they can also do far more harm than good.