President Obama rose to the occasion. In a Dallas speech that started with a joke about the first lady’s love of Stevie Wonder and quickly grew solemn, the president included everyone, and asked something of everyone, as well. He acknowledged his own humanity and imperfections and asked those on all sides to do the same.
And he reminded those listening, at least those with the “new heart” and “new spirit” the Lord promised Ezekiel, that he is a leader who cherishes the promise of America. For someone whose faith has been questioned, the president always reaches deep into Scripture for comforting messages.
Despite the way the words have sometimes been turned against him, Barack Obama reminded Americans that he still believes in “hope and change,” a message the country needs more than ever.
Thrust into the role he and the country must be tiring of — that of consoler in chief — the president paid tribute in specific and human ways to the five police officers shot and killed in a city still in shock. They have a tough job, he said: “We ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.”
And he stood up for those who peacefully protest with the message, “Black Lives Matter.”
There are those who would criticize the president for including both in the tribute to the slain officers. Like the odious Rudolph Giuliani, forever lurking in the cesspool of American disorder, looking for a hate-filled road to relevance, who popped up again this week to excoriate black people for the ills of the world.
But Obama sees Americans united, police and marchers doing their sincere best to end violence. Obama mentioned how both the protesters and their protectors shared friendly words and selfies in Dallas before a “demented” individual created a scene of chaos and carnage.
Now, there is work to be done.
That may be a reason Obama’s words sometimes get lost or drowned out. People want easy answers, heroes and villains, a beginning, middle and end. Obama presents a complicated country, where bias isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination — and existed long before cell phones and Facebook Live made death a spectacle — but also a place where opportunity and greatness can triumph. He calls negotiation and reconciliation hard, but necessary work.
Obama acknowledges the weariness that most Americans are feeling after last week. “I don’t know,” he said. “I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.”
But you can also see him working it out the way most Americans are, trying to figure out what to do to make it better. The president had a suggestion: “Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.”
His acknowledgment of imperfection and uncertainty, his own included, is startling in a season of political attack, counterattack and defensiveness. As the two parties gear up for nominating conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, with police chiefs begging participants to leave their guns at home, Obama says, “With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans, not just to opponents, but to enemies.”
Obama seems to believe in America — the resilience and resolve of its people — far more than those who insist he hates his country. Why, as the country is in search of common ground, have so many politicians, tried to tear down Obama’s view that “we are not as divided as we seem.” He says he knows that “because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.” Do they?
When politicians try to characterize the president as a divider, it just doesn’t ring true. To see him in Dallas alongside a Republican former president, joining hands and speaking hard truths to all Americans while refusing to lose faith in a country that has been through a lot, not just this week, but since its birth, you understand why his approval ratings are rising.
Obama told the story of a young boy whose mother was shot by the same man targeting police in Dallas. She protected her child, was saved by police and tearfully thanked them, and now her son says he may join the force someday.
“I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace. Weeping may endure for a night but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning,” he said.
On a horrible day, Obama tried to see a light at the end of the dark tunnel of the past week’s events, urging Americans that by working together — and only by working together — will we see a measure of that joy.
Americans may end up missing him more than they know.