Barack Obama may be the greatest presidential orator in modern American history. But his comments yesterday about the killing of George Floyd were awkward and strained. The reason is that Obama told the same story about America that he’s been telling since he entered national politics 15 years ago. It’s a hopeful story about a country that is more united than divided. And it’s never felt more dissonant than it does now.
“As tragic as these past few weeks have been,” Obama suggested in a speech delivered from his home in Washington, D.C., “they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened.” He was particularly “hopeful,” he explained, because “so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized.”
As he has many times before, Obama saw in current events the seeds of a more decent nation. And yet that faith in America’s moral direction—which was so prevalent among progressives when Obama took office—feels out of step with the embitterment and radicalization that have brought protesters into the streets today.
Look back over Obama’s past statements on race, and you notice two core themes. First, America’s is a story of progress. In March 2008, under pressure to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, candidate Obama condemned his former pastor for not recognizing America’s capacity for change. “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons,” he declared, “is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made.” In 2015, Obama even found a narrative of hope in Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina—a massacre that proved to many the historical continuity of white terrorism in the South. Roof, Obama told the mourners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “was being used by God.” The Almighty had used his atrocity to make “us to see where we’ve been blind … to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred into many of our citizens.”