Obama on Baltimore

by Reihan Salam

When asked about the ongoing turmoil in Baltimore, President Obama offered thoughts that almost perfectly distilled the difference between the worldviews of conservatives and liberals. As Evan McMorris-Santoro of BuzzFeed reports, Obama’s lengthy, off-the-cuff remarks centered on the idea that the reason we’ve failed to address the deep structural problems that give rise to urban unrest is a failure of political will:

“If we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets short or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids and we think they’re important and they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence,” Obama said.

“That’s how I feel, and I think they’re a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way,” Obama said. “But that kind of political mobilization, I think we haven’t seen in quite some time. And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference, but I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough, because it’s too easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law-and-order issue as opposed to a broader social issue.”

Essentially, Obama is saying that the solutions to society’s problems are not only knowable but known, and that all we need is political mobilization to put these solutions in place. Conservatives tend to be skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions, as policy measures that might benefit some communities, families, or individuals might prove ill-suited to others. This is part of why conservatives are so drawn to markets, and to decentralized problem-solving more generally. If you believe that we already know the answers to society’s problems, well, we’re in excellent shape. All we need is political will, as Obama seems to believe. But if we don’t know the answers to society’s problems, and if we can’t know them, as society’s problems are an aggregation of the particular problems facing particular people in particular circumstances, we need a trial-and-error process that allows us to identify problems as they emerge, gives rise to new institutions that can address these problems, and then allows these institutions to adapt, change, or go out of business as the underlying problems take new forms. 

Obama also suggested that Republicans in Congress are to blame for Baltimore’s woes:

“If we are serious about solving this problem, we’re going to have to not only help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do, the rest of us, to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids, to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system to it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons. So that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony conviction for a nonviolent drug offense. That we’re making investments so that they can get the training they need to find jobs. That’s hard. That requires more than just the occasional news report or task force,” Obama said.

“And there’s a bunch of my agenda that would make a difference right now in that,” he went on. “Now I’m under no illusion that under this Congress we’re going to get mass investments in urban communities, and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference, around school reform and job training and some investments in infrastructure in these communities trying to attract new businesses in.”

Responsibility for education and criminal justice largely resides at the state and local level in the United States, as Obama knows very well. Baltimore’s local government does not have the resources of the federal government at its disposal, yet it does have a great deal of leverage to address widespread charges of police brutality, which appear to have engendered considerable distrust in many of the city’s violence-plagued neighborhoods. The United States is a large, diverse country, and many of our cities include neighborhoods defined by high levels of concentrated poverty. Not all of these cities, thankfully, have police forces that are distrusted in the communities they serve to the same degree as Baltimore’s. Moreover, there are a number of states, led by Texas and Georgia, that have made significant strides in reforming their criminal justice systems, and that in doing so have helped shored up the legitimacy of their criminal justice systems. These are both segregated states with high poverty rates, yet somehow they appear to be doing a better job on this front, in some respects, than Maryland. And Maryland, lest we forget, is widely considered one of America’s most ambitious and innovative states when it comes to using government to address social problems. It’s true that Maryland has had a Republican governor for several weeks. But his predecessor was Martin O’Malley, a two-term governor and former mayor of Baltimore who is by all accounts a devoted progressive. Can it really be that the deep structural problems Obama identifies are best tackled by Congress?

It’s foolish to expect Obama to call out the people who’ve governed Maryland and Baltimore for the past several decades for failing their most deprived citizens in some profound way, not least because many of them are his political allies. But the rest of us should have no such compunction. 

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