Obama Exhibits Trademark Caution in Wrestling With Race

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver tried to warn people that on racial matters they were not going to see a different Barack Obama in his second term. Cleaver was amazed after the president was reelected at how many African-Americans believed he was suddenly "liberated" to be bolder on race. As he told National Journal, he kept hearing that "in the second term, we're going to get the 'real' Barack Obama, and by 'real' they mean that, I guess, he's going to show up in a dashiki." To all of them, Cleaver said that "the president is who he was in the first term. And it would be foolish for me ... to give them the impression that the nation and the world will see some kind of reincarnation of Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton."

Almost two years later—after the president's careful and tempered reaction to the shooting death of Michael Brown and the violent protests in Ferguson, Mo.—the warning from Cleaver, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, rings true. The president who was cautious in his first term has been equally cautious in his second term, even amid the uproar that greeted the non-indictment of the police officer who fatally shot Brown. By the time the president convened a meeting of police, academics, and civil-rights leaders at the White House Monday, that persistent caution should have eliminated any thoughts that he still might pull a dashiki out of his closet.

It was a somber president in a blue suit who spoke to reporters for 10 minutes after Monday's meeting, which he described as "an honest conversation" that drew 47 people to the White House—12 civil-rights leaders, eight youths, seven police officials, five mayors, four ministers, two academics, and nine administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The president acknowledged "a simmering distrust" between "too many police departments and too many communities of color." His response was Obama at his most thoughtful and his most cautious. He was cautious about the use of surplus military equipment by domestic police forces, promising to make it more transparent so it can be studied. He was cautious on police behavior, promising to work with Congress to pay for more body cameras to be worn by cops on the street. He was cautious about the Justice Department's role, announcing that the outgoing attorney general will "convene a series of these meetings all across the country."

And he was cautious in falling back on that most familiar of Washington responses—a task force to further study the situation. This new group, he said, is "going to reach out and listen to law enforcement, community activists, other stakeholders." Anticipating the skepticism over yet another study of the country's racial problems, the president insisted "this is not going to be an endless report that ends up collecting dust on a shelf. My expectation is concrete recommendations that we can begin to operationalize both at the federal, state, and local levels."

As he has since the August shooting in Ferguson, the president continues to resist any kind of bold personal statement such as traveling to the troubled St. Louis suburb. "Let's take a look and see how things are going," he said last week, not ruling out an eventual visit. It is a stance that forced press secretary Josh Earnest to dance around the question at Monday's briefing, insisting the president is "open" to a trip but that "we haven't decided that." Eventually, it became clear that the White House fears such a high-profile visit to the site of the Ferguson riots would detract from Obama's effort to have a much broader discussion of national problems.

"The president is interested in having and making sure that we are focusing on these issues that are resonant, not just in Ferguson, but in communities large and small all across the country," said Earnest, adding that Obama "recognizes that not just one presidential trip to Ferguson is going to solve the problem here, but rather a sustained commitment that looks at some of the underlying issues...."

But one of the issues that burst onto the national agenda in August was the propriety of using vehicles of war to quell protests on the nation's streets. When the president announced a government task force would study a federal program that moves surplus U.S. military equipment to local police forces, there was talk of real change. With some prominent Republicans joining Democrats in saying the so-called 1033 Program had gone too far, there was optimism that Obama's task force would reform it. But after five months of vigorous police lobbying to preserve the program, the White House task force concluded with only minor recommendations and the program intact.

An administration official briefing reporters on background Monday wouldn't even venture into discussing legislation pending to limit the provision of military equipment to police. "I don't have a specific position for you," the official said. He added, "Our assumption is Congress has an intent here to support local law enforcement with the use of this kind of equipment. Our focus is on what kind of protections are in place to make sure it's used properly and safely."

It is a cautious conclusion for a task force that many hoped would produce something bolder. And it raises further questions about the outcome of the new commission the president launched Monday. Even Obama acknowledged the doubts. "There have been commissions before. There have been task forces. There have been conversations. And nothing happens," he said. But, he insisted: "This time will be different. And part of the reason this time will be different is because the president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure that this time is different."

That prediction of success may have been the most incautious statement of the day by a cautious president. After all, other presidents from Harry Truman, who desegregated the military and had studies of civil rights, to Bill Clinton, who launched a "national conversation on race," similarly proclaimed a deep personal investment. The 90-day clock is ticking on this president's latest attempt to wrestle with race.