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.