Updated at 9:26 a.m. ET on June 4, 2020.
Barack Obama didn’t want to outshine Joe Biden. He never wants to be seen as speaking for all black Americans.
But the former president was too worried about the condition of the country to stay silent about George Floyd’s death and the protests that have followed. It was going to take more than the statement he put out on Friday, writing that Floyd’s killing “shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in America in 2020,” for him to feel that he’d done his duty. The essay he published on Monday, urging reforms? One hundred and ninety-four thousand “claps” on Medium, for whatever that’s worth. The tweet he sent as the sun went down on Monday night, a few minutes after Donald Trump returned from gassing protesters to make way for his Bible photo op, with a video of Floyd’s brother saying, “Let’s do this another way”? It has 650,000 likes and counting. He still had more to say, and his closest advisers believed that he needed to say it. Tuesday morning, the former president and his aides started scrambling to set up an event for him to host yesterday afternoon—and to arrange the sit-down Zoom speech that CNN and MSNBC carried live.
Speaking out about controversial political issues, even in the measured way he did yesterday, is extremely unusual for Obama. He went into his post-presidency reluctant to let Trump change him, or force him to abandon the presidential tradition, which he took seriously, of giving deference to one’s successors. He knows that, as the first black president, his words on race carry extra weight and attract extra attention—and, often, harsher judgment. But watching a president attempt to turn the firepower of the federal government against the American people helped him overcome his reluctance to intervene.