Obama Keeps Distance From Ferguson as Risking More HarmLisa Lerer and Roger Runningen
President Barack Obama is seeking to calm the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri -- from a distance.
While the White House hasn’t ruled out an eventual trip to the town, visiting now would divert law-enforcement resources needed for keeping the peace, according to aides, who asked for anonymity to discuss their planning.
Obama also doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides: Asked this week whether he might go to the St. Louis suburb, the president said he didn’t want to suggest that he has judged the situation before investigations are complete.
“I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Aug. 18.
Going to Ferguson also would place the first black U.S. president in a racially charged situation. His presence might amplify the divisions brought to the surface over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. Previous presidents also have refrained from visiting scenes of domestic turmoil.
“I don’t think the president needs to come to Ferguson,” Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat and the first black mayor of Kansas City, said in an interview yesterday on MSNBC. “It adds another distortion; we don’t need that now.”
Attorney General Eric Holder will represent the administration with a visit today. Holder is overseeing the federal investigation into the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, which sparked the protests and looting.
In advance of his trip, Holder and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett held a conference call with leaders of civil rights groups on Aug. 18 to assure them that justice would be done in the case.
While Holder's in Ferguson, Obama will remain on Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s on vacation with his family.
Presidents rarely wade into riot zones while the disruption is under way. After rioting erupted in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of four police officers in the Rodney King beating case, President George H.W. Bush waited until the violence abated before visiting the area.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson dispatched Assistant Attorney General Roger Wilkins to the Watts riots in Los Angeles, while he remained in the White House.
“We put enormous pressure on anyone if we create the atmosphere that if this person comes to town, everything is going to be OK,” Cleaver said.
Race has been a particularly fraught topic for Obama.
From his 2004 Democratic convention speech about bridging the country’s divisions, which catapulted him into national politics, through his time in office, Obama has himself emerged as a polarizing figure. His first five years as president ranked among the 10 most politically divided in the U.S. since the Eisenhower administration, according to Gallup, which tracks presidential approval ratings.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama sought to diminish race as a subject, addressing it directly only after video of an inflammatory sermon by Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at the Chicago church he attended, got wide circulation before the Pennsylvania primary.
Obama backtracked on remarks he made in 2009 after Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, was arrested at his own home by an officer responding to a break-in call. Less than a week after the incident, Obama said the police “acted stupidly.” Following criticism from political opponents and police unions, Obama later said he should have “calibrated” his words more carefully.
After the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager who was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” It wasn’t until a year later, after the man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder charges, that Obama delivered more expansive remarks on the case and the state of race relations in the country.
Obama has avoided personalizing Ferguson. He said young black men who commit crimes must be prosecuted because every community has “an interest in public safety.”
While he understood “the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos,” Obama said.
Reaction to Brown’s shooting has been starkly divided by race. While 80 percent of blacks say the shooting raises important issues about race, 47 percent of whites say the racial issues are getting more attention than they deserve, according to a national survey by Pew Research Center conducted Aug. 14-17.
Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who’ll be visiting Ferguson with Holder, said he wanted the Obama administration’s role to be limited. While the federal government can assist, it “should not assume the state and local governments’ responsibilities,” he said in a statement after speaking with Obama on Aug. 18.
Beyond the political concerns are the practical ones. A presidential visit is a huge logistical undertaking involving local, state and federal security forces such as the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI.
An Obama trip is, in effect, a military mission, beginning with travel on Air Force One to putting local hospitals on alert and making sure doctors have his blood supply on hand.
In an overnight trip to Minneapolis on June 26-27 for speeches and fundraising, officials from the Minneapolis Police Department were joined by authorities covering numerous jurisdictions, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s department, St. Paul police and Ramsey County sheriff’s office.
‘Lot of Work’
“So it’s all the local jurisdictions that would be involved with anything,” said Lieutenant Dean Christiansen, an officer with the emergency preparedness unit of the Minneapolis Police Department who was involved in the early planning for Obama’s visit.
Then there is the arrival. Local police accompany the president’s motorcade, posted at each intersection and freeway entrance to stop traffic.
“Depending on the route, this can take 100-150 officers,” Christiansen said in a telephone interview
“It’s just very labor-intensive in terms of shutting things down,” he said. “It’s an honor for sure, but it’s an awful lot of work.”