Friday, August 15, 2014

How Race Undermines Obama’s Bully Pulpit on Ferguson

Brendan Nyhan, NYT
AUG. 14, 2014

Before Thursday, President Barack Obama had issued only a brief written statement about the events in Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb that erupted in protests after Saturday’s killing of an unarmed black youth, Michael Brown, by a police officer.

But he soon came under pressure to address events there more forcefully, prompting him to interrupt his vacation in order to make a public statement today.

In the modern era, we expect presidents to weigh in on almost every major news story – an impulse that reflects our desire for them to appear to be in control of events. Mr. Obama accordingly noted today that he had directed the Justice Department to investigate the shooting in Ferguson, but the agency’s response was already underway before the statement. His comments thus seemed intended instead to alleviate concerns that he was not taking what had happened seriously enough.

But will the president’s involvement actually have a positive effect? Many who have called on Mr. Obama to speak up may not realize that it could be counterproductive for him to be visibly involved in the debate. Research by a Brown University political scientist, Michael Tesler, shows that the mere mention of Mr. Obama, the first African-American president, polarizes the public along racial lines on issues ranging from health care to how people feel about his dog, Bo.

(More here.)

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