At a time when the US stands in front of a confluence of historic crises, former President Barack Obama has started stepping forward, emerging from his political hibernation and taking on an increasingly public role.
The US has been rocked by a series of crises that has exposed deep racial and socioeconomic inequalities in America and reshaped the November election, reports AP.
Obama is signalling a willingness to sharply critique his successor, President Donald Trump, and fill what many Democrats see as a national leadership void. On Wednesday, he held a virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
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“We both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that could be implemented and monitored and make sure we’re following up on,” he said.
Obama called for turning the protests over Floyd’s death into policy change to ensure safer policing and increased trust between communities and law enforcement. He urged the mayors to review their use of force policies with their communities and “commit to report on planned reforms” before prioritising their implementation.
Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to Obama, said the former president is not going to shy away from dialogue simply because he’s not in office anymore.
During the round table, Obama drew parallels between the unrest sweeping America currently and protest movements of the 1960s.
He warned that the attention moves away at some point and “protests dwindle in size” and so “it’s important to take that moment that’s been created as a society, as a country, and say let’s use this to finally have an impact.”
‘It can’t be normal’
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Obama was beginning to emerge from political hibernation to endorse the Democratic presidential bid of Joe Biden, who served as his vice president, when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the US, killing over 100,000 people, and the economy began to crater.
The crises gave Obama a clear opening to start publicly arguing what he has signalled to friends and associates privately for the past three years: that he does not believe Trump is up for the job.
Addressing graduates of historically black colleges and universities last month, Obama said the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing.”
In a nationally televised broadcast celebrating graduating high school seniors, Obama said many “so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs,” do only what’s convenient and feels good.
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Floyd’s death has drawn a more visceral and personal reaction from the nation’s first black president. Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
In a lengthy written statement last week, Obama said that while he understood that millions of Americans were eager to “just get back to normal” when the pandemic abates, it shouldn’t be forgotten that normal life for people of colour in the US involves being treated differently on account of their race.
“This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal,’” Obama wrote.
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Tensions across the country have escalated further with Trump backing harsh crackdowns on protests and threatening to deploy active-duty military to the states but Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that he did not believe such action was warranted.
Biden’s campaign welcomed Obama stepping forward during this moment.
“President Obama’s voice is a reminder that we used to have a president who sought to bridge our divides, and we can have one again if we elect Joe Biden,” said TJ Ducklo, a campaign spokesman.
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Obama grappled with police brutality against minorities as president, including in Ferguson, Missouri, where clashes broke out after the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old. After Brown’s death, Obama’s Justice Department moved to enact broad policing reforms, though most were halted under the Trump administration.
Biden called this week for restoring some of the previous administration’s actions in the wake of Floyd’s death and the killing of other black Americans.