President Obama has opened himself up to criticism in the wake of the slaying of two New York police officers by allowing other prominent outspoken figures — such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton — to seize the spotlight. Mr. Obama has been either unable or unwilling to completely take control of the narrative, political analysts say.
Indeed, while Mr. Obama vacationed in Hawaii, it was Mr. de Blasio, already at odds with his own police department, who called on demonstrators to cease protests against police brutality out of respect for two NYPD officers killed in cold blood over the weekend. The gunman claimed the attack was retribution for the recent deaths of black Americans at the hands of cops.
The president “has been in the background. Why is it we’re talking about the mayor of New York City on this? He’s been the out-front spokesperson,” said Montre Carodine, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who has written extensively on race relations. “It’s coming back to bite him. He’s getting the backlash. They need someone to blame.”
Mr. de Blasio on Monday called for a temporary halt to protests in the wake of the deaths of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. The two men were shot in their patrol car by 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who said on social media he was motivated by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, respectively.
Brinsley later took his own life.
In the hours following the brutal slayings Saturday, critics of Mr. Obama lumped the president in with Mr. de Blasio, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Rev. Sharpton and others who have made strong statements about the need for serious law enforcement reform. Those critics blamed the president and his allies for inciting retribution against police, driven by anger after separate grand juries declined to charge officers in connection with the deaths of Brown and Garner.
“We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police,” former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News on Sunday. “They have created an atmosphere of severe, strong anti-police hatred in certain communities, and for that, they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, also said there’s a growing undertone of anti-police sentiment in America that could drive further violence.
For his part, Mr. Obama has tried to find a middle ground between speaking up for the African-American community and its troubled history with law enforcement while not being overly critical of cops.
After the deaths of the two officers in New York, Mr. Obama issued a statement condemning the violence early Sunday.
In what was perhaps an attempt to remain out in front of the issue, the president on Sunday night called Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, co-chair of a presidential task force on 21st century policing formed in the aftermath of the Brown and Garner grand jury decisions and subsequent protests.
The White House said Mr. Obama used the call to “express his outrage over the senseless murders” and also “reiterated his profound respect and gratitude for all law enforcement officers who serve and protect our communities.”
But Mr. Obama, while at times seeming to stand on the front lines of the issue, has at other moments seemed perfectly content to let others have the spotlight.
Over the past few days, Mr. de Blasio has captured headlines for his public battle with the NYPD; officers turned their back on him when he appeared at a press conference over the weekend, still angry about what some believe was the first-term mayor’s anti-police political campaign. He remained in the thick of the debate Monday by appealing to protesters to temporarily stop demonstrations against police brutality.
Rev. Sharpton also attracted attention for his statements, blasting Mr. Giuliani and others for purportedly blaming a supposed anti-cop mood for this weekend’s killings.
“We are now under intense threat from those who are misguided — from those who are trying to blame everyone from civil rights leaders to the mayor rather than deal with an ugly spirit that all of us need to fight,” he said Sunday, while also condemning “eye-for-an-eye” violence against police officers or anyone else.
While Mr. Obama largely has avoided highly inflammatory statements on the issue, he has invited criticism with some of his moves.
Earlier this month he convened law enforcement officials, civil rights leaders and others for a high-level meeting on how to reform policing. Mr. Sharpton was present, but no one from the Ferguson police department attended the meeting.
His uneasy relationship with the law enforcement community stretches back to his early days in office. In 2009 he declared that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, acted “stupidly” for arresting Harvard professor Henry Gates.
Mr. Obama later invited both Mr. Gates and the officer who arrested him to the White House for a “beer summit.”
In recent remarks the president has been careful to praise law enforcement while not shying away from broader problems.
“The frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly,” he said last month after a Ferguson grand jury decided not to charge police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death. “That may not be true everywhere, and it’s certainly not true for the vast majority of law enforcement officials, but that’s an impression that folks have, and it’s not just made up.”
But political analysts say statements such as those highlight Mr. Obama’s larger problem: By trying to remain somewhat neutral, he’s allowed louder voices on either side to drive the debate.
“It’s a tough position to be in. It’s easier, for example, to say you’re just with one side. Because then you’ve got one side that’s with you and the other that’s presumably against you,” said Matthew Dallek, a political science professor at George Washington University who specializes in political leadership and the presidency. “The fact that he sees these issues in complicated ways and tries to talk about them in complicated ways I think opens him up” to criticism.