President Obama held a brief press conference in the White House yesterday to address two major topics: developments in Iraq, where there’s been some noticeable progress, and conditions in Ferguson, Missouri. On the former, the president was focused and specific. On the latter, Obama was vague and cautious.
This almost certainly wasn’t an accident. Ezra Klein had a terrific piece yesterday noting many of the reasons the president “won’t give the Ferguson speech his supporters want.” There’s a fair amount to this, much of it having to do with the White House’s belief that Obama’s remarks on racially-charged conflicts tend to make those problems worse.
And though Ezra didn’t mention it, the president is also likely cautious given that a federal prosecution in this case remains a distinct possibility. Obama knows from experience that saying too much about an ongoing issue can have a detrimental effect on legal proceedings down the road.
But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder often seems willing to say what Obama won’t. Take yesterday, for example, when the nation’s top federal law-enforcement official made a not-so-subtle jab at local law enforcement in a written statement.
“I realize there is tremendous interest in the facts of the incident that led to Michael Brown’s death, but I ask for the public’s patience as we conduct this investigation. The selective release of sensitive information that we have seen in this case so far is troubling to me. No matter how others pursue their own separate inquiries, the Justice Department is resolved to preserve the integrity of its investigation. This is a critical step in restoring trust between law enforcement and the community, not just in Ferguson, but beyond.”
That was fairly blunt rhetoric under the circumstances, and with Holder traveling to Ferguson tomorrow, one assumes the Attorney General will have some other choice words once on the ground locally.
But it’s the degree to which this keeps happening – Obama staying above the fray while Holder jumps in it – that’s starting to get more attention. Glenn Thrush noted in a lengthy piece in June that the Attorney General “has been willing to say the things Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t say about race.”
The piece added, “Holder himself recently told another African-American friend that he feels part of his job is ‘to talk about things the president can’t talk about as easily.’ Asked to describe Holder’s role, one of his former top aides described him as ‘Obama’s heat shield.’”
Or maybe his “anger translator”?
Jamelle Bouie had a great piece a few months ago drawing the comparison to one of my very favorite sketches on one of my very favorite shows.
Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, a sketch comedy show from Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, has a great recurring bit that debuted during the 2012 presidential election. In it, President Obama (played by Peele) responds to his more populist liberal critics with a new hire, Luther, his “anger translator” (played by Key).When Obama says, “I know a lot of folks say I haven’t done a good job at communicating my accomplishments to the public,” Luther translates with “Because y’all don’t listen!” And when Obama says he wants Republicans to know his “intentions are coming from the right place,” Luther gives the real message, “They’re coming from Hawaii, which is where I’m from, which is in the United States of America, y’all. This is ridiculous. I have a birth certificate!”The parallel isn’t great – there’s no visible anger, for one – but I can’t help but think of this skit when I see Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and their rhetoric on race and racism.
If you haven’t seen Key & Peele’s “anger translator” sketch, this was the first-ever installment. Please note, the language in the clip isn’t even close to being safe for work.
Obviously, Holder has very little in common with the “Luther” character – the A.G. is even-keeled and restrained – but the larger point remains the same. There a fair number of instances in which the president bites his tongue during a broader debate about a racially charged story, and often, it’s Holder who steps up to say what Obama won’t.
It’ll make the Attorney General’s appearance in Ferguson tomorrow that much more interesting.