In modern American history, voters have been quick to judge the President’s actions more harshly if they voted for him. When voters feel as if they had some direct impact on ensuring that the President secured the presidency, they may be more disappointed if the President does not follow through on campaign promises as they see fit. For former President Obama, expectations from Black voters were high from the outset of his presidential campaign. Throughout his presidency, Obama was criticized by Black academics and activists on the issue of his actions not reflecting his impassioned speech about racism in America put forth during his campaign. One such critic is Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor, who argued that Obama did not outwardly condemn acts of police brutality and other attacks against Black Americans. In her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor presents a scathing critique of former President Obama’s unsatisfactory denouncement of the injustice in the case of Trayvon Martin’s death. However, in his commentary The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform, the former President opens up about the manner in which a president can conduct his speech and actions, considering that he is not a private citizen.
Because this commentary was published in January of 2017, Obama was able to disclose some of his sentiments concerning his involvement in criminal matters in a way that he probably could not have during the midst of his presidency. What I found very interesting is that, in his commentary, Obama made it clear that he did have an opinion on the criminal justice cases involving race and racism on which the public argued he stayed silent. However, he knew that although Black Americans look to the President for his opinion, “the President does not and should not decide who or what to investigate or prosecute or when an investigation or prosecution should happen.” Obama felt that he must stand in solidarity with Black Americans, but that, as the executive branch, he could not criticize the justice system and risk putting in jeopardy “the rule of law as well as the integrity and independence of the justice system.” For these reasons, Obama went about improving the justice system in a number of other ways, such as advancing legislative reforms, changing policies in the executive branch, and utilizing clemency.
With this nuanced response to his critics, Obama sheds more light on why he felt that he could not denounce actions of the judiciary. Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor does not consider that presidents are not private citizens. Presidents need to be careful about speaking about legal matters, especially when investigations are still pending when the public looks to the President for his opinion. When recalling the many videos of incidents of police brutality that occurred during his presidency, Obama concurs, saying, “like millions of others, I would watch these videos.” Still, he could not comment because he could not influence the legal process and did not have the liberty of speaking freely. Of course expectations were high when the first Black president came into office. However, instead of harshly condemning Obama’s fair-weather opinions, critics must take a closer look into why he acted the way he did, and the many ways that he tried to impact the prejudicial criminal justice system from multiple different angles as the executive.