Obama Shapes Ferguson Debate From Afar

Presidents don't always want to address events. But it matters when they do. 
Sometimes local is presidential.

I recommend a very nice Brendan Nyhan column on race, Barack Obama and Ferguson, but I think we can go a bit farther on the topic of the presidency and Ferguson.

Brendan makes two key points: Obama had to speak out about Ferguson because that’s what the presidency requires -- but that for Obama to speak out risks further polarizing the nation.

First of all, the whole phenomenon of Obama “needing” to speak out is tremendously important. It’s a crucial, and extra-constitutional condition of the presidency. No one much cares what the speaker of the House or the majority leader of the Senate has to say, but in times of national turmoil everyone expects the president to say something -- whether the president has any role in addressing the problem or not.

Brendan quite rightly stressed the risks. The president is expected to fix the problem, yet not only do the powers of his office relate at best indirectly to local policing in Missouri, but his particular circumstances may make any public statement counterproductive. Here’s how Justin Vaughn and Jennifer Mercieca put it, writing generally about presidential rhetoric several months ago: “The heroic expectations of the American presidency, despite its myriad burdens, do not allow acknowledgment of impotence nor does it tolerate expressions of doubt, indifference or defeat.”

It’s not just a matter of Obama’s race. Any president would be pressured to speak out, and any president would be cross-pressured about what to say. A president wants to be on the side of justice -- but certainly doesn’t want to be on the side of cop-bashers. Especially when not all the facts of a situation are known. But beyond that, presidents generally don’t want to take sides firmly at all unless they absolutely have to. After all, a president who takes sides against one group today may need to ask that group for something tomorrow. Sometimes a president may want to play the role of honest broker to resolve a situation, but the demands of public rhetoric -- think, for example, of the rhetorical requirements of responding to an oil spill -- may push him to take one side, thus undermining his position. He discovers he must be Henry V when he'd really rather be Sir Humphrey Appleby.

That said, a president's power to focus the nation's attention presents a huge opportunity. Yes, presidents sometimes are pressured to speak when they might prefer silence, but they also have the opportunity to use speech to define and frame events as they see fit. That can help advance some other portion of their agenda. A classic case is President George W. Bush’s use of the Sept. 11 attacks to elevate the (alleged) threat from Iraq.

Yet presidents do that sort of thing all the time. Depending on the president and his agenda, a hurricane can be an example of the need for new infrastructure, or for action on global warning, or a wake-up call about the need for greater oil and gas capacity. While the president's framing usually cannot change voters' minds, much less disrupt stable legislative coalitions, sometimes just raising an issue's priority can be enough to push a stalled initiative over the finish line. There are plenty of proposals that legislators may not want to vote against -- or even explain why there has been no vote -- even if their first choice is to ignore the whole thing.

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