Whether President Barack Obama goes to Ferguson, Mo. in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed black teen has become the question du jour among American politicos.
Obama’s liberal base and a righteously raw black community have clamored for the nation’s first black president to get directly involved in the latest episode of deadly violence meted out upon a defenseless black youth.
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But visiting Ferguson would not only be a risky move for a president bogged down in political immobility, it would more likely inflame tensions than quell them.
And given his track record dealing with issues of race, it’s probably better that Obama maintain some distance while demonstrating an empathetic engagement.
His presidential performance in two previous race storms – the Henry Louis Gates racial profiling and Trayvon Martin shooting incidents – didn’t live up to his 2008 “More Perfect Union” campaign speech on race, or the country’s subsequent and wildly unrealistic expectation that he single-handedly improve America’s racial climate.
After Gates, a noted black Harvard University professor, was arrested on suspicion of burglarizing his own Cambridge, Mass. home in
2009, Obama conducted the infamous Rose Garden “Beer Summit” between the president, the professor and the white cop who arrested Gates.
Obama’s painfully awkward opening act in addressing the nation’s most enduring social issue achieved little more than to embarrass everyone involved.
But it left the president with a credibility gap in dealing with issues of race. That may explain why the usually detached Obama took the uncharacteristic step of emphatically wading into the next racial episode that captured public attention.
In 2012, an unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood vigilante utilizing Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense statute. In the hypersensitive aftermath, the president remarked that the black teen “could have been my son,” or “me 35 years ago.”
He was criticized in some sectors for a simplistic statement on a complex situation.
Obama seems to have learned from these episodes. Asked Monday by ABC if he would visit Ferguson, the president was cautious.
“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.
Six years into his presidency, Obama sounds like he’s adopting the well-established presidential practice of assuming an imperial posture on volatile domestic social crises.
President George H.W. Bush, for example, expressed shock when a jury acquitted Los Angeles police of beating motorist Rodney King, but was quick to call for law and order when riots erupted.
When presidents have stepped into social issues, as Bill Clinton did with his controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards gays in the military, it often complicates the situation, rather than improves it.
So publicly wading into the Ferguson situation would be a bad move for the president.
What do you think?