President Obama spoke on Friday about racial profiling, the George Zimmerman verdict, the state of blacks in America and a whole host of other highly-contested, divisive issues — and yet managed largely not to offend anyone.
Obama’s aides had long been wary of the president speaking out on controversial racial issues, particularly after his 2009 comment that Massachusetts police had “acted stupidly” by arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates turned into a controversy that dominated headlines and newscasts and forced the president to hold an awkward “beer summit” two weeks later at the White House with both Gates and the arresting officer.
But aside from usual critics like Sean Hannity on the right and Tavis Smiley on the left, Obama’s speech successfully achieved a set of a complicated goals: showing the president’s empathy toward African-Americans, the Martin family and others disappointed with Zimmerman’s acquittal, not second-guessing the jury’s decision or implying it would be reversed by officials in Washington, addressing concerns about racial equality but at the same time emphasizing the racial progress that Obama’s own election victories have so powerfully illustrated.
Not only did few Republicans criticize Obama’s 18-minute speech, it was praised by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, John McCain, and even Robert Zimmerman, George’s brother. Wallace pointedly said, “I sure don’t see how you can read this as in any way stoking racial tensions.” McCain called the speech “very impressive.”
Instead of being mired in a days-long debate about race and Martin, Obama’s speech will allow him to shift back to other issues. The president aides viewed his comments on Friday as his final word about the Zimmerman verdict, and Obama is expected to spend this week giving a series of speeches on improving the economy for middle-class Americans.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr