As expected, President Obama weathered a vicious firestorm of attacks over the weekend on his speech on race and Trayvon Martin, this time from the left and the right—but the president is moving on this week by trying to swing the media focus back on the economy.
Obama’s impromptu speech has been hailed by most observers as a watershed moment in presidential history, one that NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell said “gave me the chills.”
After a week of rising clamor in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal, Obama strode out onto the stage in the White House briefing room and delivered one of the most powerful and personal speeches about race that the nation has ever seen from the occupant of the White House. Speaking on the death of young Trayvon Martin, Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
The president also blasted the “Stand Your Ground” law—which Attorney General Eric Holder also criticized earlier in the week. Obama said the country needed to focus more attention on improving the plight of young black males.
There was extreme displeasure with the president’s remarks in some quarters, but most of the attack came from predictable sources.
One of the most personal attacks came from persistent Obama critic Tavis Smiley, who along with Cornel West has been excoriating Obama since his first election in 2008. After tweeting on Friday following the speech that Obama’s remarks were “as weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid,” Smiley followed up the vitriol Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
“I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up,” Smiley said. “But this town has been spinning a story that’s not altogether true. He did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.”
Smiley continued, warning that the issue of race was one that had to be seized.
“When he left the podium, he still had not answered the most important question, that Kingian question, where do we go from here? That question this morning remains unanswered, at least from the perspective of the president. And the bottom line is, this is not Libya. This is America. On this issue, you cannot lead from behind. What’s lacking in this moment is moral leadership. The country is begging for it. They’re craving it.”
Smiley contrasted Obama’s relative silence on race to the president’s statements on gay marriage.
“I don’t know how the president argues that he doesn’t believe that he can have a role in leading us in a moral conversation,” Smiley said. “This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue. I don’t know how he can’t lead us in a conversation on this, but he can on gay marriage? He can on a litany of other—he can on Israel and Palestine, but not race?”
Former Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino picked up a Republican line of attack that the president—and other African-Americans—have heard before from the right wing: Why isn’t there more outrage over crimes committed by blacks?
On “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Perino questioned why the president didn’t choose to address a crime that was allegedly committed in Brunswick, Georgia, by two black teens during what the mother says was a robbery attempt, when a white toddler was shot in the face and killed. Questions have since been raised in the case after gunshot residue was found on the baby’s mother and father, who was not near the shooting, according to report.
“When a president speaks, it’s to multiple audiences,” Perino said. “So from the prism of self-defense, when you think of a young mother whose two-year-old son was shot in the face by the two black teens who approached her in Atlanta, and that baby has died—Why do presidents choose to speak about one case and not the other? That’s why, it’s better maybe not to talk about any of them. They chose to talk about this one.”
But on the same show, former Obama adviser Van Jones pointed out that there also hasn’t been outrage over the case of Marissa Alexander.
“The ‘Stand Your Ground’ situation is very, very problematic,” Jones said. “You have Marissa Alexander, that’s the next big case. She’s the African-American woman who tried to stand her ground against her abusive husband. She fired a bullet into the ceiling, she gets twenty years in jail for firing a shot in the ceiling, whereas somebody who fires a shot into a teenager is still walking the streets a free person.”
MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane, predicted right after the president’s speech that the attacks would come.
“I feel like the level of vulnerability we see in this president in this moment is striking,” she said. “Even as he’s speaking, all of us can anticipate—as he’s said many times, black communities are not naïve—and so anyone watching this is not naïve about the storm that’s going to follow in the wake of the president’s words. I suspect even as we celebrate this, we will ask about the delay, but I’m sure that part of the delay is his sense that wading into this also turns it onto him and away from Trayvon Martin.”
As for the economy, the president this week is going back to Knox College in Illinois, where as a freshman U.S. senator he spelled out a vision for an expanded and strengthened middle class. There he will make the first in a new series of economic speeches that White House aides say Obama intends to deliver over the next several weeks ahead of key budget deadlines in the fall.
The government’s new fiscal year begins in October, and the government will soon hit its borrowing limit—just after Congress is scheduled to leave for its monthlong August recess.
Obama is trying to build public pressure on lawmakers to avert the showdowns over taxes and spending that have sprung up during previous budget battles.