WASHINGTON (AP) — When he pays tribute to fallen police officers in Dallas on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will be aiming to comfort the mourning and calm the angry.
After a week of rising racial tensions in a restless summer, Obama will step into a storm of strong emotions about race, justice, policing and guns in America. Defusing those tensions will take a deft hand and carefully chosen words, navigating between the opposing pressures of protesters and police, blacks and whites, Republican and Democrats.
For Obama, it’s a task he’s attempted throughout his presidency — with mixed results. He has had to address the nation after violence with exhausting frequency. In speeches in Tucson, Arizona, and Charleston, South Carolina, he’s offered lofty rhetoric and emotional release likely to be remembered as pivotal moments in his presidency.
But Obama has had more difficulty positioning himself as a bridge builder, particularly on questions of police tactics and gun control. Despite years of trying to persuade critics, Obama is viewed skeptically by many in law enforcement, and his push for local departments to change their ways has stalled.
As protests over police brutality continue in American cities and the Dallas police department prepares to bury five white officers targeted by a black shooter, Obama’s words and actions this week will be closely watched.
COMFORTER IN CHIEF
Obama has had more practice than he’d like in this role. The persistence of mass shootings in America means responding to these events is a new part of life at the White House. For many, he issues a statement. For some, he flies to the scene to visit with families. For a few, he delivers a high-profile speech on the meaning of the moment.
In 2011, Obama seized on the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and others, to make an appeal for civility in political discourse. In 2012, after 20 children and six adults were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, the president declared his intention to push for tighter gun controls and appealed to parents for support.
Obama’s most memorable of these speeches is likely the eulogy he delivered in Charleston last year, after the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. The speech was largely a sermon on grace, which he described as “that reservoir of goodness.” ”If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change,” Obama said, before breaking out into a solo performance of “Amazing Grace.”
BEYOND THE BEER SUMMIT
Obama on Tuesday will tie his condolences to a more specific political issue: The lasting rift between black communities and police.
Obama’s approach has evolved dramatically over this presidency. Early in his tenure, he stepped clumsily into a dispute between a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and African-American professor Henry Louis Gates.
After saying the police acted “stupidly” in the case, Obama tried to orchestrate a teaching moment by inviting Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to share a beer at the White House.
In recent years, after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Obama has chosen his words more carefully. Even as he has spoken out about prejudice in the justice system and his own experience as a black man, he’s described the biases as “institutional” and long-standing rather than personal.
He’s repeatedly praised officers who put their lives in danger and argued that policing reforms keep police themselves safer.
“If you can rebuild trust between communities and the police departments that serve them, that helps us solve crime problems,” Obama said last week. “That will make life easier for police officers. They will have more cooperation. They will be safer. They will be more likely to come home.”
The White House is looking for ways to channel the energy around the issue — and show there is a policy prescription — though the administration has expressed little hope that the shootings will spark a new legislative effort in the hyper-partisan campaign season.
On Monday, Obama met with law enforcement officials to discuss implementing a set of police reforms drafted by a White House task force, and he’ll meet Wednesday with a broader group, including law enforcement, activists and academics.
The goal, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday, is “repairing the bonds of trust that have frayed in so many communities between law enforcement officials and the citizens that they have sworn to serve and protect.”