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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It was shortly before 1 a.m. when President Barack Obama arrived at the White House for his vacation break — that is, his break from his vacation. By late afternoon the same day, he had met with his national security team about Iraq and his attorney general about Ferguson, and was delivering a statement to the press in the White House briefing room. He looks tired, Twitter said. He isn’t wearing a tie, Twitter complained. Where is his passion? Twitter wanted to know. And then there was this, from retiring ABC correspondent Ann Compton, on Ferguson: “Have you considered going yourself? Is there more that you personally can do?”

Maybe a white president eventually would have gotten the Compton questions. With a black president, the only surprise was that they hadn’t been asked sooner.

Every time there is a demographic breakthrough, the pathbreaker confronts soaring expectations and symbolic responsibilities. John F. Kennedy had to explain how his Catholic faith would or wouldn’t influence him in the White House, and more recently he would have been on the spot to weigh in on sexual abuse scandals involving priests. A President Mitt Romney, steeped in a less familiar faith, would have been a de facto interpreter of what it means to be Mormon and pressed to comment on any developments involving his church.

Had President Hillary Clinton been in the Oval Office for the last few years, she would have been cross-pressured by senators with competing ideas of how to handle sexual assaults in the military. She might have been expected to show a special interest in the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls, in the plight of Saudi women who are legally the property of men, in female genital mutilation in Africa and Asia, and in the gender-based abuse and murder committed by the Islamic State.

If Clinton does become president, feminist expectations of her would be immeasurable, and destined to be dashed. There’s no way she could live up to her stirring pronouncement nearly 20 years ago, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” As Secretary of State, Clinton even encountered pushback for supporting Saudi women protesting their country’s ban on women drivers.

While Obama’s victory bulldozed a brick wall, it could not banish the past to the past. It thus falls to Obama to interpret the still painful black experience for the rest of America, a trial-and-error process that usually results in one faction or another being annoyed, alienated or disappointed. In this instance, Obama hasn’t branded the Ferguson police stupid, which is what he called the Cambridge police when they arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard professor trying to get into his own locked home. He hasn’t said that if he had a son, he’d look like the dead Ferguson teen, Michael Brown, though he made headlines with that formulation a month after Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.

It’s been less than two weeks since the Brown shooting and police have said the 18-year-old is a suspect in a robbery that happened shortly before he was shot, two possible reasons for Obama’s caution. Ever the master calibrator, the president has talked of the tough job the police have to do, the tragedy of someone dying so young, the communities that “often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects.” He sent a stand-in to Ferguson — Eric Holder, the first black attorney general.

If Obama wants to show personal passion, there is a way. He should take up the causes of voter registration and turnout in Ferguson, as Al Sharpton has done. Republicans call this exploiting a tragedy, but in reality it is promoting politics as a substitute for looting, shooting and street protests, in a place that needs to hear that message. Consider: Overall turnout in this year’s municipal election in Ferguson was about 12 percent — “an insult to your children,” Sharpton told mourners last weekend. Last year, according to research done for The Washington Post, black voter turnout was a tiny 6 percent — roughly one-third the level of white turnout.

As you’d expect, given those patterns, Ferguson has a white mayor, five white council members out of six, and a police force that is 94 percent white. The real shock is that this small St. Louis suburb is 67 percent black. There is no reason for blacks in Ferguson to feel isolated or hopeless. There is every reason for them to vote, and for Obama to remind them through exhortation and his very existence of the change that can be wrought at the ballot box.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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