Unrest over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., has completely overshadowed President Obama's domestic priorities, the latest in a string of crises that have derailed the president's agenda.
First, violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza and Ukraine put Obama’s preferred “nation building at home” on the back burner. A two-week vacation in Martha’s Vineyard that the president had hoped to use to recalibrate his domestic message has been consumed by questions of race, police tactics and whether he should visit the St. Louis suburb.
The top items on the president's domestic agenda, such as immigration reform, job creation and raising the minimum wage, have been lost in the broader debate about how to put out fires both at home and abroad.
In a press conference Monday, he trumpeted U.S.-backed efforts to help Kurdish forces recapture the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq before discussing the unrest in Ferguson. That developments in Iraq were being framed as the silver lining showcased how problematic Ferguson could become for the White House — and Obama’s image.
The trend has even some allies of the White House questioning whether Obama is stuck in a permanent reactive mode, unable to dictate the terms of the conversation in Washington and across the nation.
“You could argue that Ferguson is his domestic agenda right now,” said a senior Democratic strategist with close ties to the White House. “Sometimes, as president, you have to spend a significant amount of time reacting to breaking events. It does seem like we’ve been in this constant pattern for a few months now — he has to be somewhat frustrated by it.”
Obama is dispatching Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson Wednesday to serve as the administration’s point man for the increasingly volatile situation. A police officer shot and killed a man wielding a knife Tuesday, just four miles from the protests in Ferguson.
Senior administration officials say the president still hasn’t ruled out a trip to try to soothe tensions in Missouri but is weighing whether a visit would do more harm than good.
With the Ferguson story certain to stay in the headlines for the foreseeable future, Obama will struggle to get his domestic message out.
“The active perception is that Obama is reacting and not leading,” said Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University. “I don’t think there’s much Obama can do about it. He tries to talk about jobs, the economy in any given week, but it’s not getting through — the media isn’t covering it.”
“Once a perception like that becomes established, it becomes very difficult to dislodge,” Martin Medhurst, a Baylor University expert on presidential communication, added of the directionless narrative surrounding Obama. “Circumstances are often the last thing presidents want to talk about. Ferguson is requiring that he engage in something that he clearly hasn’t wanted to — a discussion on race. That takes the focus away from immigration reform and other domestic issues he’d rather talk about.”
Those pushing for a more proactive Obama, however, will welcome his long-anticipated plan at the end of summer to address immigration reform through executive actions. Many political observers had wondered whether Obama returned to Washington this week to announce his immigration blueprint, only to be disappointed when he discussed Iraq and Ferguson before continuing his Martha’s Vineyard vacation.
“Once he comes out with his immigration plan, that’s all you guys will be talking about,” the Democratic strategist quipped.
Still, some analysts said there’s little reason to be bullish about the president’s domestic agenda given the constant gridlock in Washington.
“We’re in a position of stasis,” said Stephen Hess, a former adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. “Nobody is moving and nobody is going to move.”