Judging from my Twitter feed – and from the various social-media aggregators that compile national trends — there is growing pressure on President Obama to speak about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The standard criticism runs something like this: “President Obama has spoken about Robin Williams’s death, but he can’t be bothered to discuss riots in an America city.” This line is not only coming from the typically critical Right, but from ostensibly middle-of-the-road journalists who have wondered aloud what this says about his priorities, and also from those who believe that the killing is not receiving the attention that it deserves.
All told, I think that this is rather unfair. The situation in Ferguson is an extremely difficult one, and it is almost certainly about to be made worse by both the invasion of hucksters like Al Sharpton and by hyperbolic coverage from a media that loves to turn incidents such as these into a “trend.” This being so, whatever he ends up saying, Obama really cannot win. In fact, he can’t win whatever he does. If he remains silent, he will be accused by the Right of vacationing while the country burns, and by the Left of not caring enough about justice. If he does say something, he’ll be accused of interfering with — and possibly prejudicing — an ongoing legal inquiry, of making the story about himself, and of feeling it necessary to involve himself in each and every issue that makes the national headlines. As for the detail, any official statement would be fraught with peril. If his comments were delivered in a less-than-perfect manner, he might inadvertently say something that gave a poor impression; by contrast, if he read prepared remarks from a teleprompter, he’d be accused of sounding disinterested. Worse, perhaps, he might be seen to be taking sides. If he pleases those who wish to see a restoration of law and order, he will look as if he is siding with authorities and ignoring the concerns of black Americans who consider the police to be a threat. But, if he discusses race in a general sense, he will look as if he is deciding what happened prematurely, and as if he is stirring up grievances that have — in some quarters — already been blown out of proportion. Some will even accuse him of stoking a “race war.”
There is little to be gained here either way: The president is damned if he speaks, and he is damned if he doesn’t. Having watched what happened when he chose to intervene in the Trayvon Martin and Skip Gates affairs, can anybody really blame him for keeping schtum?