WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama is taking on an increasingly public role as the nation confronts a confluence of historic crises that has exposed deep racial and socioeconomic inequalities in America and reshaped the November election.
In doing so, Obama is signaling a willingness to sharply critique his successor, President Donald Trump, and fill what many Democrats see as a national leadership void. On Wednesday, he held a virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Obama rejected a debate he said he'd seen come up in “a little bit of chatter on the internet" about “voting versus protests, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action.”
“This is not an either-or. This is a both and to bring about real change,” he said. “We both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that could be implemented and monitored and make sure we’re following up on.”
Obama called for turning the protests over Floyd’s death into policy change to ensure safer policing and increased trust between communities and law enforcement. He urged “every mayor in the country to review your use of force policies” with their communities and “commit to report on planned reforms” before prioritizing their implementation.
“We’re in a political season, but our country is also at an inflection point,” said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to Obama. “President Obama is not going to shy away from that dialogue simply because he’s not in office anymore."
During the round table, Obama drew parallels between the unrest sweeping American currently and protest movements of the 1960s. But he said polls show a majority of Americans supporting today's protesters and forming a “broad coalition” in a way much of the country didn’t back then — despite some of the recent protests "having been marred by the actions of a tiny minority that engaged in violence.”
Still, he warned, “at some point, attention moves away” and “protests dwindle in size” so “it’s important to take that moment that’s been created as a society, as a country, and say let’s use this to finally have an impact.”
Obama was already beginning to emerge from political hibernation to endorse Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential bid when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the U.S., killing more than 100,000 people, and the economy began to crater. The crises scrambled the Biden campaign’s plans for how to begin deploying Obama as their chief surrogate ahead of the November election, but also gave the former president a clear opening to start publicly arguing what he has signaled to friends and associates privately for the past three years: that he does not believe Trump is up for the job.
Addressing graduates of historically black colleges and universities last month, Obama said the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing.” And in a nationally televised broadcast celebrating graduating high school seniors, Obama said many “so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs,” do only what’s convenient and feels good.
Floyd’s death, however, has drawn a more visceral and personal reaction from the nation’s first black president. Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
In a lengthy written statement last week, Obama said that while he understood that millions of Americans were eager to “just get back to normal” when the pandemic abates, it shouldn’t be forgotten that normal life for people of color in the U.S. involves being treated differently on account of their race.
“This shouldn’t be 'normal' in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal,’" Obama wrote.
Tensions across the country have escalated further in the days since the former president’s statement. His town hall on Wednesday will mark his first in-person comments since law enforcement officers aggressively cleared peaceful protesters from a park outside the White House so Trump could walk across for a photo opportunity at a nearby church.
Trump has cheered harsh crackdowns on the protests, some of which have turned violent, and threatened to deploy active-duty military to the states if local officials could not get the demonstrations under control. He appeared to be backing down from that position this week, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he did not believe such action was warranted.
Biden's campaign welcomed Obama stepping forward during this moment.
“President Obama’s voice is a reminder that we used to have a president who sought to bridge our divides, and we can have one again if we elect Joe Biden,” said TJ Ducklo, a campaign spokesman.
Obama grappled with police brutality against minorities as president, including in Ferguson, Missouri, where clashes broke out after the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old. After Brown’s death, Obama’s Justice Department moved to enact broad policing reforms, though most were halted under the Trump administration.
Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, called this week for restoring some of the previous administration’s actions in the wake of Floyd’s death and the killing of other black Americans. Biden also called for Congress to take immediate steps, including outlawing chokeholds.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Washington and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.