Obama’s Trayvon Moment: One for the History Books

Major Garrett

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

With that one sentence, President Obama on Friday placed himself in the middle of a raging national debate as a parent, a president, and an African-American speaking to and for the black "community."

White House officials said that Obama was eager to discuss the killing of Trayvon Martin and has tracked carefully the twin components of the Florida crime: the shooting of the unarmed teen and allegedly slipshod police investigation and the broader sense of grievance African-Americans of all socio-economic backgrounds feel about the unspoken threat of violence posed to their children.

His decision to wrap his arms around Martin's family and give voice to thousands who have taken up their cause may be a watershed moment in his presidency.

Obama has sought to avoid wading into distinctly racial issues, preferring not to reinforce any real or imagined stereotype of an African-American president governing or speaking specifically on behalf of African-American interests. This was true long before Obama became president. It was first displayed to the nation during Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech when he said, “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Speaking as an African-American candidate to a diverse, multi-ethnic audience as a politician who at least promised the idea of rising above partisanship and above race, Obama was viewed skeptically by some in the civil-rights community. That community remained divided almost until the end of the epic Obama-Clinton struggle. In part, Hillary Clinton enjoyed the support of African-American leaders who found a champion in Bill Clinton’s presidency, even though when Clinton ran in 1992, his relations with the civil-rights community were strained at the time.

Obama sought to transcend race even more than partisanship, and throughout his presidency he’s waded far more deeply into partisan struggles to advance his legislative agenda – stimulus spending, health care, Wall Street regulation, deficit reduction – than elevate the concerns or acute needs of the African-American community.

Obama’s first meeting with civil-rights leaders at the White House didn’t occur until February 2010. Obama held the meeting in the middle of an epic Washington blizzard. The weather was a slight metaphor for the temperature of the relationship between Obama and the nation’s top African-American leaders. They came to the White House to see if Obama understood their outrage over high African-American unemployment and crime. 

That February meeting occurred seven months after the famous “Beer Summit” at the White House, where Obama and Vice President Joe Biden hosted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sgt. Joseph Crowley to settle differences over Crowley’s arrest of Gates for disorderly conduct. The arrest occurred after Crowley was dispatched to Gates’ home to investigate a suspected burglary. Obama jumped into the fray at a nationally televised press conference by saying the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly.”

The ensuing uproar lasted nearly two weeks and was defused only by the summit on the White House South Lawn. Press coverage was so breathless and intense that Obama lost nearly two weeks of focus on his legislative agenda, which then included health care and jobs legislation. Senior White House aides now look back on the experience with a combination of awe and horror, seeing it as a genuine Alice in Wonderland moment when Obama fell down a rabbit hole of long-simmering racial conflicts and debates.

The lessons taken from the Gates experience were many, not the least of which was exercise caution where race and the law -- and entrenched opinions about both -- are present.

Obama has also said little about his hometown of Chicago’s high murder rate, and there is some sense among some African-American scholars that Obama’s silence on crime and urban issues has undercut his presidency. Obama sought to address that in 2011 by telling hosts from Chicago’s largest urban radio station, in an Oval Office interview, that “when America gets a cold, African-Americans get pneumonia.”

Throughout his presidency, Obama has endured intense criticism from Princeton University scholar and African-American writer Cornell West and TV host Tavis Smiley for failing to do enough to assist African-Americans. Obama has shrugged aside the criticism and devoted little time responding directly or indirectly.

Never before have the issues of race, justice, and Obama’s ability to speak to the larger issue and devote federal resources to festering criminal investigation converged as they have in the Trayvon Martin case. After the Justice Department acted, Obama had a choice – jump in right after and “own” the investigation, or watch the public reaction to the case build.

Obama stepped in after a full week of travel spent defending his energy policies and just before departing for South Korea for a nuclear nonproliferation summit. Both are small-bore metaphors of what Obama tried to do in the always-challenging realm of race – defuse the sense among African-Americans that he wasn’t paying attention or feeling their sense of loss and outrage while steadily fueling the urgency of federal and state investigations into the crime itself.

With that one sentence – “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon” – Obama did both. And his manner, words, and tone may mark a turning point in his presidency when it comes to matters of race and justice and how he is perceived on these issues by African-Americans.