Before Holder Could Be Attorney General Holder, Obama Had to Be President Obama

Everyone’s praising the attorney general’s response to the crisis in Ferguson, Mo.—and rightly so. But before you rip the president’s response, it’s worth noting that Holder’s there because the president put him there.

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President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service, an annual ceremony honoring members of law enforcement who were killed in the line of duty during the previous year, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 15, 2013.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

After saying, two Fridays ago, that “President [Barack] Obama failed in his leadership to say what he really knows and has lived as a black man in America”; then saying, a week ago on Face the Nation, that the president “needs to step up to the plate and be responsible”; and writing, Friday, in the Washington Post, that Obama is “a sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life,” Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson has made it abundantly clear that he’s displeased with the president’s response to the killing of Michael Brown and events in Ferguson, Mo.

Not to mention that he and others are, by contrast, clearly encouraged by Attorney General Eric Holder’s response to Ferguson, describing the attorney general to the New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo and Peter Baker as “an up-and-down race man who understands the moral consequences of the law on the lives of black people.”

And to the extent that we’re talking about Holder’s role, I completely agree with Professor Dyson. Even though I’ve been a mild critic of Holder in the past, the attorney general’s response, as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, has been laudable under these circumstances. Both his timely op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, outlining the steps that his Justice Department is taking to investigate Brown’s shooting, and his trip to Ferguson reflect a public servant who is trying to make a positive impact in a difficult situation.

But while we’re praising Holder—and ripping Obama—it seems to me that it’s worth mentioning the obvious: There wouldn’t be an Attorney General Holder if there weren’t a President Obama there to appoint him. And that’s the piece of all the Obama criticism that I can’t quite figure out.

I won’t rehash all the reasons that I also think Obama has served his role well, up to this point, in responding to Ferguson. You can read what I already wrote here.

My point, with regard to Holder and Obama, though, is that each of them has a part to play in this, and I don’t know why it’s been taken another way—particularly by Dyson, who, a Washington Post reader pointed out, wrote back in 2008 that “a black president can’t be a civil rights leader or primarily a crusader for racial justice.”

Occasionally, Obama does lead with a more emotional or righteous tone, as he did when he spoke about the killing of journalist James Foley by terrorists; or his valediction for Trayvon Martin; or his 2013 State of the Union address, during which he remembered slain teenager Hadiya Pendleton, saying, “She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss; she was a majorette.”

But undoubtedly, there’s a particular way that Obama approaches his job most of the time—I’ve described it as measured or even conservative; others call it cautious or even bloodless—it’s consistent with the way he approaches all aspects of his job, from waging war to his dealings with Congress, not just in his response to tragedies like Michael Brown’s death. And I’d argue that it’s precisely that temperate approach that has enabled him to do his job effectively as president—and why he was elected president to begin with.

If Obama wasn’t the way he was, I doubt he’d have been elected twice—by margins far exceeding his immediate predecessors. And if he hadn’t been elected, he wouldn’t have been there to appoint Holder, the guy who, as MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry described, is, effectively, Obama’s “feet on the ground” in Ferguson.

On Saturday, Dyson told Harris-Perry that he urged Obama to convey the message to the people of Ferguson, to African Americans—to all Americans—that “I am behind you” and “the resources of your government are behind you.” I agree.

But I don’t know how he can do that any more effectively than getting elected, putting the resources of the Department of Justice in the hands of an experienced attorney like Holder—the first black attorney general—offering his own words and dispatching Holder to Ferguson.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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