But the conversation was fairly soft. It was classic Obama: Admitting that every side had something to offer, steering a moderate path, and calling on all sides to step up and compromise.
The president was strongly supportive of law enforcement: “In you, we often see America at its best. You don’t just protect us from each other, you build a foundation so that we can trust each other and rely on each other.” He said that falling crime rates did not mean that minority concerns about the police could be brushed aside, but he said that police should not receive nearly so much blame.
“Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for broader failures of our society and our criminal-justice system,” he said. “You do your job with distinction no matter the challenges you face. But we can’t expect you to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about‚ problems ranging from substandard education to a shortage of jobs and opportunity, an absence of drug-treatment programs, and laws that result in it being easier in too many neighborhoods for a young person to purchase a gun than a book.”
Obama also blamed the media for focusing on “the sensational and the controversial.” He added: “The countless acts of effective police work rarely make it on the evening news.” And he said that every profession has bad actors, not just law enforcement, though he criticized the impulse to “close ranks” when police come under scrutiny.
Even the harsher parts of the speech were fairly tame. “We’ve got to resist the false trap that says either there should be no accountability for police, or that every police officer is suspect, no matter what they do,” he said, delivering to the coup de grace to what must be a straw man: “Neither of these things can be right.” Indeed.
Obama joked that “before I had a motorcade,” he would sometimes get pulled over by the police. “Most of the time I got a ticket, I deserved it. I knew why I was pulled over. But there were times when I didn’t,” he said, adding that many African Americans felt the same way. “The data shows that this is not an aberration. It doesn’t mean each case is a problem. It means that when you aggregate all the cases and you look at it, you've got to say that there’s some racial bias in the system.”
Nor did Obama shy away from discussing the high rates of crime in black communities—“black-on-black crime” and issues in African American communities that he is sometimes (unconvincingly) accused of overlooking. Chicago, where black communities have seen extremely high violent crime in the last few years, was a natural place to discuss this. “Our divides are not as deep as some would suggest,” he said. “I don’t know anyone in the minority community who doesn’t want strong effective law enforcement.”