Obama Gives Democrats a Road Map for Talking About Black Lives Matter

President Barack Obama takes part in a discussion on criminal justice reform at the White House. Obama addressed the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been a source of controversy for the 2016 presidential candidates. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Even Barack Obama's most vocal opponents would agree that the president has one significant strength: words. At a criminal justice forum late Thursday, the commander-in-chief and best-selling author commented on the Black Lives Matter movement, and his response articulated a point that other politicians have not been able to get across.

"I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' was not because they were suggesting nobody else's lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that's happening in the African-American community that's not happening in other communities," Obama said.

The comment attempted to refute the perceived implication that the movement devalues other races. Drawing attention to police violence against African-Americans, Obama said, is not about touting the exceptionalism of one group of people, but rather reflecting on the effects of the nation's history of inequality. "We, as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously," he added. "One of the ways of avoiding the politics of this…is everybody just stepping back for a second and understanding that the African-American community is not just making this up."

There are no shortage of Americans in both the media and the electorate who argue that the Black Lives Matter movement is an inflammatory provocation of racial divides. As a result, the retort "all lives matter" has become a standard response, one that Black Lives Matter supporters view as recalcitrant. This makes it extremely difficult for politicians to state either phrase without provoking controversy.

Black Lives Matter has tripped up candidates from both parties, but in the early stages Republicans have largely deflected the movement. It is unlikely to sway any significant portion of their primary electorate.

On the other hand, Democrats have had to tread carefully around the subject. Early this summer, Martin O'Malley apologized for using the phrase "all lives matter" (trumpeted by Republicans like Jeb Bush), and activists forced Bernie Sanders to give up the microphone during a campaign speech over a similar offense.

Front-runner Hillary Clinton has received mixed support from Black Lives Matters members. When she met with activists backstage at a campaign event (the meeting was recorded on a video that went viral), some of the organizers weren't satisfied with her response, while other commentators praised her for taking a pragmatic approach. Clinton urged protesters to develop an actionable agenda to address police violence against African-Americans.

The media, meanwhile, has mostly played up the linguistic aspect of the movement: Do you say "all lives matter" or "black lives matter?" The question is the sort of gaffe-producing soundbite that plays well in the 24-hour news cycle. It was also a subject during the first Democratic presidential debate.

The news coverage of the words "black/all lives matter" is perhaps predictable in a political atmosphere where language has become an issue to run on. Ben Carson has said that controversies over the phrase are an example of "political correctness going amok." Donald Trump and Carson, the top two Republicans in the polls, have touted their ability to speak their minds and get away with it. Trump characterizes the current political establishment as "all talk, no action," and he explains his many controversial statements by saying he "doesn't have time" to be politically correct. In nearly every speech and interview he has given, Carson has cited the language restrictions of political correctness as a pressing issue facing the nation.

It's not new for candidates to cite their opinions about language as a reason that they should be elected president of the United States. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush campaigned on his ability to speak plainly. His choice of words (and often malapropisms) gave rise to the oft-cited notion that he was "a man you could have a beer with" (even though he gave up drinking alcohol years before running for president). It became a way to define himself against stiff and wordy Democrats like Al Gore and John Kerry. Even though Bush and Kerry had both been educated at Yale, Bush was perceived as a regular person while Kerry was perceived as a member of the elite, as Keith Hennessey expounded upon in 2013. The current Republican front-runners are using a similar strategy by painting Democrats as overly PC and portraying themselves as straight talkers.

Obama, both as a candidate and a president, has exhibited the rare ability to push through these kinds of oversimplifications and articulate ideas that are nuanced without coming across as dodgy. He's made statements that he wishes he could take back (the "red line" in Syria tops the list), but to understand why Democratic candidates should follow his lead on Black Lives Matter, look at a similar question that came up during the 2008 primaries.

As Obama was able to point out in 2008, questions that pose misleading linguistic binaries say less about candidates than about the people asking the questions. Obama's statements on Black Lives Matter manages to get to the meaning behind the three simple words without becoming embroiled in the knee-jerk reaction they have provoked.

Some voters won't be won over by Democrats on the issue (there are plenty of those who believe the current president is a racist for drawing attention to shootings of African-Americans, and their perspectives are just a click away), but by following Obama's lead Clinton and company can at least figure out how to do themselves no harm.