President Obama’s announcement that he is sending Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson tomorrow to more closely monitor the situation has raised questions about why the president seems reluctant to get more passionately involved in the crisis, and appears again to be using Holder as his racial “heat shield.”
In numerous pieces across the Internet, commentators noted how subdued and distant Obama’s language has been when talking about Ferguson, particularly compared to the passionate words he used when he said that slain teen Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago.
Writers such as Philip Bump in the Washington Post noted that the president explained that he can’t become too closely involved because an investigation is still ongoing into how Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson. A private autopsy revealed at least six bullets were pumped into Brown—including two in his head.
“I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed,” the president said yesterday during a return to the White House after interrupting his Martha’s Vineyard vacation. When the Department of Justice is investigating, “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.”
But this talk of legalese doesn’t tell the whole story, as noted by Ezra Klein on Vox.com in a piece with the headline, “Why Obama won’t give the Ferguson speech his supporters want.”
“The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them,” Klein writes. “Obama’s supporters often want to see their president ‘leading,’ but the White House knows that when Obama leads, his critics become even less likely to follow… The White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better. It is as likely to infuriate conservatives as it is to inspire liberals. And in a country riven by political polarization, widening that divide can take hard problems and make them impossible problems.”
While he spoke about the alienation felt by many African-American men who “are left behind and seen as objects of fear,” the president angered and frustrated many African-Americans by focusing on the protests in Ferguson that law enforcement has been unable to control, despite being armed like a military force and calling in the National Guard.
“While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos,” he said. “It undermines rather than advanc[es] justice.”
With Holder coming to town, it gives commentators that opportunity to compare the statements and actions of the attorney general to those of the president.
As some observers have surmised, Obama does this on purpose, allowing Holder to say the things he feels he can’t—at least without alienating a large chunk of the country. It was Politico writer Glenn Thrush who in a piece a few months back, quoted a former aide saying Holder was Obama’s racial “heat shield.”
In his own statement, Holder was sounding more like someone seeing things from the community’s perspective.
“I realize there is tremendous interest in the facts of the incident that led to Michael Brown’s death, but I ask for the public’s patience as we conduct this investigation,” he said in a statement after meeting with the president.
“The selective release of sensitive information that we have seen in this case so far is troubling to me. No matter how others pursue their own separate inquiries, the Justice Department is resolved to preserve the integrity of its investigation. This is a critical step in restoring trust between law enforcement and the community, not just in Ferguson, but beyond.”