Should President Obama go to Ferguson?

Obama has sent Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson, Mo., amid racially charged unrest. That probably buys the president time. But for the first black president, it's a no-win situation. 

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama meets with Attorney General Eric Holder in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Monday. Mr. Holder is leading the federal response to the racial turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., amid concerns that the president should go himself.

To some Americans, Attorney General Eric Holder’s visit to Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday only raises larger questions: Shouldn’t President Obama himself go to Ferguson? Couldn’t he, as the nation’s first African American president, lend a moral authority to the situation like no other, including the nation’s first black attorney general?

The answers are far from clear. Now in its 12th day, the unrest over a white policeman’s killing of an unarmed black teenager has escalated into the biggest racially charged crisis of Mr. Obama’s presidency, with no end in sight.

Mr. Holder’s trip to Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, is more than symbolic. As America’s top law enforcement official, he’s there to consult with FBI investigators and prosecutors, and to meet with community members. His visit keeps attention focused on what the federal government can do on the ground there.

The White House has also put out word that Holder, top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, and another Justice Department official held two conference calls Monday on Ferguson with more than 1,000 African American and civil-rights leaders around the country. Translation: The White House is treating the Ferguson crisis with utmost seriousness, knowing that the unrest could spread.

In an interview with Politico, Ms. Jarrett lays out the rationale for not sending Obama to Ferguson.

“The circumstances determine the reaction, and it isn’t appropriate for the president to speak up emotionally in the midst of an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department,” Jarrett says.

“He wants the attorney general and his team to be able to conduct an independent investigation without any thumb on the scale one way or another. I think the president’s goal is to add his voice in a way that is calming, so the violence ends, and to send a message to the government officials on the ground about what his expectations are in terms of freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press – and also to signal to the people who have been looting and shooting that that’s not an acceptable way to honor the death of a young man.”

But to some protesters in Ferguson, only Obama himself, in person, can solve the crisis.

”He needs to come down here and stop all this and bring all this to justice,” Steven Wash of Ferguson told the Hill newspaper Wednesday.

Certainly, an Obama visit would intensify the global spotlight and raise the stakes for the president and all those who look to him for leadership. But it would be mostly symbolic, and its outcome unpredictable, political analysts say. That alone probably rules it out, for now. In addition, the continuing unrest adds to the usual safety concerns of presidential travel.

As a rule, caution has infused Obama’s words and actions on Ferguson. Start with the fact that much remains unknown about the exact sequence of events leading to the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot Aug. 9 by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

“There’s so much gray here, President Obama has to be extra careful not to take a side,” says Andra Gillespie, a scholar on African American politics at Emory University in Atlanta. “He’s trying to tread a really fine line.”

In five and a half years as president, Obama has learned that an off-hand comment on a racially sensitive subject can quickly dominate national discourse. In July 2009, just a few months into his tenure, Obama remarked that police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates at his home. Thus launched a week of debate, culminating in the now-famous “beer summit” in the Rose Garden.

A year later, the Obama administration was embarrassed when it reacted hastily to an edited video that purported to show black Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod making racist comments against a white farmer. Ms. Sherrod was fired, and when the truth came out, Obama called her to express regret and offer her another job at Agriculture, which she declined.

The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., showed Obama in a different light. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” said the president, allowing himself to open up a bit on the dangers faced by young African Americans on the streets.

The next year, Obama spoke again on life as a black man after Trayvon’s killer was found not guilty – an extemporaneous rumination on race like no other in Obama’s presidency.

But there’s no doubt that Obama remains extraordinarily cautious on race when he speaks in public – a source of never-ending frustration to many African American activists. In February, Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative aimed at channeling private sector money toward organizations helping young men of color. Even that effort has sparked controversy. Some on the left see it as “paternalistic and chauvinistic,” says Ms. Gillespie.

On Monday, in a mini press conference at the White House, Obama sent a message to Ferguson from his bully pulpit. “Let’s seek to heal rather than to wound each other,” he said.

A reporter asked Obama if he might go to Ferguson himself, but he didn’t say. That silence has left commentators to speculate on the pros and cons of such a trip. David Love, executive editor of, devotes more words to the pros than the cons.

“At the very least, having the president in Ferguson would represent potent symbolism,” Mr. Love writes at  “And yet, symbolism means a lot when there are sharp social divisions, and the presence of a leader can potentially make a difference in bringing clarity and resolution and ultimately bringing about change.”

Love calls a visit to Ferguson “made to order for Obama,” a former community organizer, civil rights attorney, and teacher of constitutional law.

“Moreover, this is his second term in office, and now is the time to begin to cement his legacy on civil rights,” Love adds.

On the “con” side, Love foresees myriad criticisms: Detractors will say he’s meddling in a local issue and should allow the legal process to play out. They’ll also call him a “black president” who is biased toward the concerns of African Americans.

“To some degree, the president is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to his critics in GOP and tea party circles, those who will accuse him of being ‘too black,’ even as his base pushes him to do more,” Love writes.

By sending Holder to Ferguson, Obama is buying time. And he’s allowing Holder to play the role of Obama’s “racial conscience,” as some presidential observers say privately. That may be the right course, for now. But as a grand jury begins to consider evidence, this story is far from over. And Obama likely has many more decisions to come in this Summer of Ferguson. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.