President Obama’s decision this week to wade once again into accusations of police misconduct has added more fuel to a raging national debate, but it also has raised questions about whether the commander in chief has backed himself into a corner and will be expected to weigh in on every single controversial action by law enforcement.
Civil rights activists have welcomed Mr. Obama’s comments and seeming dedication to addressing the issue at its source, evidenced by the formation of a White House task force that will make recommendations on how law enforcement agencies can better work with the communities they serve.
But political analysts say the president, despite noble intentions, is taking a risk on two fronts by consistently addressing accusations of police misconduct and the fallout, including this week’s decision by a grand jury in New York City not to charge a police officer in the choking death this summer of a 43-year-old black man.
First, analysts say, Mr. Obama could feel compelled to speak about every accusation of police misconduct or racial prejudice.
More important, and potentially more damaging to his credibility, the president could appear weak and ineffective if he constantly addresses the issue but cannot claim credit for any concrete changes.
“He is really sort of required to address these issues every time they pop up. But every time they pop up and he can’t do anything about it, it makes him look powerless. If he can’t show there’s some type of movement on policy but yet is forced to talk about it, it makes him look like a powerless leader,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written about presidential leadership.
“There are serious legacy concerns: making sure he’s left the world better off racially than when he came in. He is under tremendous pressure not only from a legacy perspective but from a political perspective,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.
The White House clearly wants tangible action to go along with the president’s words. Mr. Obama said he expects recommendations from his task force soon. The administration already has expressed support for, among other things, body cameras for police officers.
For now, however, the president’s response to the simmering national debate has been mostly rhetorical.
For the second day in a row, he commented on the decision by a New York City grand jury not to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. In brief remarks, he harkened back to the work his task force has begun.
“We started taking some concrete steps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, and I intend to take more steps with leaders like him in the months ahead,” he said at the outset of remarks on college affordability, the latest example of the president being forced to address racial tensions and police misconduct during speeches on entirely unrelated subjects.
Mr. Obama addressed the Garner case Wednesday during a speech at a Tribal Nations conference in Washington.
Last week, Mr. Obama appealed for peaceful protests and called for a dialogue between law enforcement and community leaders — along with hinting that racial quotas at police departments may be necessary — on the heels of a grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown.
A day after speaking about Ferguson from the White House, the president diverted from remarks on immigration reform in Chicago to again address the issues of policing and racial prejudice.
Mr. Obama also spoke out after the 2012 shooting death of Florida black teen Trayvon Martin, who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and was acquitted of all charges in the case.
Civil rights leaders have encouraged the president to become a leading voice on the broader issue.
“People want the president to be out front the same way he did with immigration, gay rights and women’s rights,” Leighton Watson, the student body president at historically black Howard University, said after a White House meeting with the president this week.
Faced with the reality that Mr. Obama may be expected to address other racially charged cases that crop up across the country, the White House on Thursday sought to explain how a specific incident rises to the level of presidential involvement.
“I think it arrives at the presidential level through a variety of means. The first is certainly these are cases that have attracted significant attention in the news media,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
“These are also cases that have attracted the attention of the broader civil rights community, and certainly civil rights leaders have a close relationship with senior members here at the White House. I think that probably the most important thing is that when we’re talking about these issues, these are issues that the president himself feels very personally,” he said.
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