Was this caused by a compassion deficit?

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Obama's Absurd Response to Baltimore

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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President Barack Obama's remarks on the riots in Baltimore started off well and then went swiftly downhill.

He first noted that Baltimore residents have legitimate concerns about police conduct, but also said that "there's no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday." He refused to call the looters protesters. "It's people -- a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals."

So far so good, and especially welcome when some on the left are making excuses for violence.

He then suggested some policing reforms -- a subject Hillary Clinton is also addressing today -- but made the case that the police alone can't solve the problems of "communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men; communities where there's no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away; and drugs have flooded the community."

All still quite reasonable.

The trouble began when he explained how society should get "serious about solving this problem." Society, he said, should do what it can to "change those communities" by boosting early education, reforming the criminal-justice system and expanding job training. While Congress won't agree to make "massive investments in urban communities," he said, it might agree to some of these proposals.

Then he came to his remarkable conclusion:

But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It's just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant -- and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they're important. And they shouldn't be living in poverty and violence. 

That's how I feel. I think there are a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way. But that kind of political mobilization I think we haven't seen in quite some time. And what I've tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference. But I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it's easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.

That was a really long answer, but I felt pretty strongly about it.

So we know how to solve the problems of urban America, but we -- "we," that is, in the sense of "you people who don't agree with my agenda" -- just don't care enough about children in need to do so.

The problem with these remarks isn't that they're partisan. It's that they're absurd.

-- Related: What Not to Do After Baltimore

They don't even fit with Obama's diagnosis of the problems at hand. Do we know how to make fathers present in their kids' lives, or how to make up for their absence? No. Are we sure how we should respond to the decline in manufacturing employment? Or how to stop people from getting involved in drugs? No and no.

Some people are confident that more funding for early education will yield benefits for poor kids. Others look at the same evidence and think that the few examples of success can't easily be replicated. Even if the first group is correct, there's no reason to think that early education will, even in tandem with other reforms, "solve" the problems of Baltimore. And federal efforts at job training don't have a sterling track record.

If I were president and thought I knew an obvious way to bring peace and prosperity to troubled cities -- and felt pretty strongly about it -- I'd maybe mention it before my seventh year in office. Drop it into a State of the Union address, for example. But it just isn't the case that we're a new federal program away from fixing the problems Obama identified. It isn't the case that conservatives are standing in the way of what everyone knows would work because we just don't share Obama's compassion.

To the extent Obama truly believes these premises, though, it surely goes a long way toward explaining why he has so often seemed frustrated during the course of his presidency.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net