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Obama's Month: He "Heard" America; Is It Listening to Him?

Obama's Month: He "Heard" America; Is It Listening to Him?

By Alexis Simendinger - November 27, 2014

America chanted past the president this month, fed up with listening and ready for its own interventions.

Whether President Obama remains an influence, or has become a bystander in conversations about “who we are” -- a favorite phrase he repeated in a speech Tuesday -- became a more urgent question in November, one that could shape the balance of his presidency.

“Stop deportations, not one more!” screamed a young woman seated four rows behind Obama’s Chicago lectern Tuesday night.

“No justice, no peace!” yelled Ferguson, Mo., demonstrators during a second night of angry protests following a grand jury’s decision to absolve a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager. Thousands of mostly young demonstrators took to the streets Tuesday across the country, as Monday’s lootings shifted to more peaceable assemblies, even with 45 arrests.

The administration says it wants to see if the lawlessness in Ferguson can spark a constructive national movement for community trust and racial justice under law, especially in the absence of a civil rights or religious leader who can steer it. The president has shown no inclination to try to fill that void by himself, despite his expressed desire to use government as part of the solution.  

When it comes to immigration’s them-vs.-us debates, Obama has been comfortable wading in, despite decades of policy upheavals that bedeviled Congresses, governors and presidents. But on racial issues, Obama favors his standing as a potent symbol of U.S. progress rather than as a militant focused on what has not changed.

“The naïve idealism in me,” he told an interviewer in the Oval Office 18 months after his election, is “a sense that beneath our surface differences, we’re all the same and that there’s more good than bad in each of us. And that, you know, we can reach across the void and touch each other and believe in each other and work together.”

Since Michael Brown’s death in August, the president has resisted traveling to Ferguson or inserting his personal perspective into the grand jury determination that Officer Darren Wilson acted within the law. After Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida in 2012, the president startled many by saying the unarmed black teenager could have been his son, or could have been himself 35 years before. Obama emotionally sided with the victim, who was shot and killed in a scuffle with George Zimmerman, who was tried and acquitted.  

The president is fond of saying he hears and understands all the American people he represents, whether they back him or not. Whether they are listening to him seems to be one of his newer worries these days. It came through during his remarks Tuesday, which wove immigration and the Ferguson uprisings into one speech. And it cropped up in the wake of Democrats’ midterm election losses earlier this month,

During his Chicago event, billed as one of many he hopes to host about immigration, a few hecklers hijacked his explanation of new policies to provide deportation relief. The president had been telling his audience that his administration sought to expel criminals who are undocumented, rather than deport hard-working families. “That has been a lie!” a woman in the audience interjected.

“Listen, hold on. Hold on. Hold on,” Obama replied as the audience became agitated. “Young lady, don't just start yelling, young lady.  Sir, why don't you sit down, too. Listen -- here, can I just say this? All right, I've listened to you. I heard you. I heard you. I heard you. All right?  Now, I've been respectful.  I let you holler. So let me -- all right?  Nobody is removing you. I've heard you.  But you’ve got to listen to me, too.  All right?  And I understand you may disagree. I understand you may disagree.  But we've got to be able to talk honestly about these issues. All right. Now, you're absolutely right that there have been significant numbers of deportations.  That's true. But what you're not paying attention to is the fact that I just took action to change the law.”

He hoped to celebrate his decisions with most in the Latino community, who lobbied him for more than six years to deliver reforms. Having acted where he says the law allows, Obama chafed at being rebuked by a vocal minority.

“What you’re not paying attention to” (his impromptu rejoinder to this week’s crowd) was a hint of that pique.

The president’s reaction after Democrats’ midterm election wipeout was similar. “I hear you,” he told those who voted as well as those who did not participate. Reporters asked him: Why had many voters tuned out? What happened to their trust? Why were incumbents in his party rejected?

“One area where I know we’re constantly experimenting and trying to do better is just making sure that people know exactly what it is that we’re trying to accomplish and what we have accomplished, [to] understand how it affects them,” Obama told reporters during a news conference Nov. 5. His economic campaign message this year, pegged to raising the national minimum wage, had not “penetrated well enough to make a difference,” he volunteered without conceding that his dismal standing with a majority of the electorate was part of the problem.

America is looking for “that new-car smell” in its political leadership, Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this week. Perhaps a newly mobilized and growing Latino community, which pressured the White House to take action without Congress (albeit temporary steps), has built some staying power. Or perhaps someone among the thousands of African-American demonstrators who shouted “Hands up, don’t shoot” this week will one day raise his or her hand to take an oath of office.

A restive public may not be listening to or waiting on Obama, but the president insists he hears them and has more work to do.

“We’ve seen young people who were organizing, and people beginning to have real conversations about how do we change the situation so that there’s more trust between law enforcement and some of these communities. And those are necessary conversations to have,” the president said Tuesday.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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