The Politics Behind The President's Words
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For more on the political repercussions of the president's recent comments, we turn to NPR senior political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, President Obama had been reluctant to talk about explicitly about race relations in this country up until now. What was it about this issue that drew him out in this way?
LIASSON: Well, you're right. You know, in 2008 as a candidate, he gave that famous speech on race after the Jeremiah Wright controversy. But since then, his one brief foray into this issue got him in trouble. You know, he called Harvard professor Skip Gates' arrest stupid. That led to the beer summit, and some people think that episode began his decline in the poll numbers among whites. But in terms of Trayvon Martin, he did speak out in March 2012, in the middle of his re-election campaign, and he signaled his empathy with Trayvon. He said if I had a son he would have looked like Trayvon. But since then, he has kept his remarks confined to a statement. The White House has kept their remarks confined to generalities about gun violence. But the president clearly had something that he wanted to say.
MARTIN: What about how he delivered the message? Days passed before he did, so seemingly spontaneous in the press briefing room. What can we read into that?
LIASSON: Well, they wanted to make sure that the protests were not violent. But the president had told his aides that he wanted to talk about it, he thought he would be asked on Wednesday about it in a round of Spanish-language television interviews, but he wasn't. So, they decided the best way to come out was with no advance notice. They needed the element of surprise to avoid the breathless cable TV drumroll - you know, countdown to the president's speech about race. They wanted to avoid that. So, he walked into the briefing room unannounced with just a handwritten card of notes to explain how African-Americans and plenty of white Americans have been thinking all week, that even if you think the jury applied the law correctly as a legal matter, you can also believe that if Trayvon had been a white kid in a sport jacket, he would be alive today. Or if George Zimmerman had been black and had tried to stand his ground, he would be in jail today.
MARTIN: What are the political implications, if any, of this, Mara? Are the critics out there who are coming down on the president when it comes to this?
LIASSON: Well, there are some conservatives who've criticized the president for fanning the flames of division. One called him the race baiter in chief. But in general, what's been remarkable is that the criticism from Republicans have been muted. Very few Republicans in Congress have responded to the president's comments. I think the political implications are unclear. It's still unlikely that the Justice Department will file a civil rights case. I think these remarks are more symbolic than political. You know, while the Jeremiah Wright speech had an obvious political purpose - an attempt to rescue his presidential campaign - this time the president of the United States talked about something that he had, for good political reasons, shied away from until now. He's wanted to be the president of the United States, not the president of black America. But there he was on Friday explaining what it's like to be a black man in America. And I think other than satisfying those in the black community who'd been begging him to speak out, one implication could be that this so-called conversation about race can continue in a slightly more candid way.
MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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