The president who acknowledged the elusive nature of national unity on Tuesday seemed far removed from the little-known state senator who made his political mark boasting of its presence.
It has been only 12 years since then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama won national acclaim with a Democratic convention address that asserted there was not a “liberal America and a conservative America,” no “black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
On Tuesday, the president spoke as a man who had cast aside the cocky confidence of those words. In their place he offered a more mature and realistic assessment of the ills of a nation that has the capacity to unify, but not always the will.
“We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share,” he said toward the end of remarks that at times sounded wistful.
We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share.
“All of us, we make mistakes. And at times we are lost. And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things – not even a president does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control over how we treat one another.“
The president spoke amid a tableau of American solidarity at the memorial for the five Dallas police officers slain in a Thursday night ambush. Filling the stage were two presidents — George W. Bush, a white Republican; and Obama, an African American Democrat — the white mayor, the black police chief, white officers and black choir members.
Unseen, but referred to by speakers, were two African American men killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota in the days preceding the Dallas shooting.
The visuals made one of Obama’s points: Americans are not as divided as extremists on both sides would have it seem; progress has indeed been made. That judgment has been borne out in recent days as protesters and police officers have come together in Dallas in a wave of mutual appreciation, and both sides in at least many parts of the nation have reacted with more nuance and understanding than in the past.
Obama spoke on a day of whipsawing political developments. In Indiana, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump presented himself as “the law and order candidate” — phrasing that echoed Richard Nixon’s pitch during the protest-ridden 1968 election — but also said that he found the civilian shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota to be “bad.”
“We have to also get to the bottom of things, but we can never, ever forget the hundreds of thousands of great … things the police all over the country do,” he said.
Earlier, as she accepted the endorsement of rival Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton opened her remarks with a nod to the “difficult days for our country.”
“Rebuilding the frayed bonds of trust and respect between law enforcement and the communities they serve will require contributions from all of us,” Clinton said. “And we have to begin by starting to listen to each other.”
If Clinton laid out some programmatic proposals, the suggestion in Dallas was that both the problems and the solutions lay not in new laws but in Americans themselves.
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” said former President Bush, who spoke before Obama.
“At our best we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others,” Bush added. “This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.”
Obama was more explicit as he outlined the differing focuses of African Americans and others angered at the persistence of police violence against civilians and those worried about concurrent violence against the police.
He implored both sides to search for “context” — for protesters to admit the dangers facing police and for police to acknowledge that African Americans face higher rates of police violence than white Americans. In a speech that frequently leaned on biblical passages, he heralded one about replacing a heart of stone with one of flesh.
Time and again, as the first president who could speak with personal credibility on issues of race, Obama has sought to educate white Americans on the perspective of black Americans, and vice versa.
But, perhaps inevitably, critics have alleged that he was favoring black Americans over police officers. That impulse crystallized only six months into his presidency, when he waded into the disputed arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was taken into custody after a neighbor reported a potential burglary.
Obama, while saying he didn’t know the full facts, asserted that Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates. Obama later apologized and invited both men to the White House for a beer-fueled reconciliation.
Since then, even in police-related incidents that were more often deadly, Obama has regularly noted that the vast majority of police officers behave appropriately — but those words have not received as much attention as his admonitions against police violence.
The events of last week — the deaths of two African American men at the hands of police and the deaths of the five officers watching over a peaceful rally in Dallas — forced both sides into a horrible equilibrium.
And they gave Obama, in one of his highest-profile such speeches, another chance to try to explain one part of America to another, to urge a politically polarized country to come together in mourning for all victims.
In doing so, he went back to the themes of that 2004 speech, the one that rang with optimism, the one before all the violence had taken its toll not only on untold victims but, it was apparent Tuesday, on Obama himself.
“I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem,” he said. “And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”
He alluded to his own election as evidence of the country’s open-mindedness and then to Dallas, itself, once ravaged as the “city of hate” in which a president was killed, and in recent years reborn with a police department doing things the right way.
“In this audience, I see what’s possible,” he said. “I see what’s possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment, all deserving of equal respect, all children of God. That’s the America that I know.”
During a presidential election year riven with anger, with his time in office slipping away, Obama was once again willing all Americans to hold that view.