In his address to the nation last night, President Obama said America has made enormous progress on race relations over the past several decades. Many would say the best evidence of that is the president himself. He is, of course, in a unique position to address the race issue.
"In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people."
That was candidate Barack Obama in 2008, visualizing a less divided country, encouraging a more candid conversation about America's legacy of racism. He offered himself as a president who could lead that conversation. There's been no shortage of events testing that promise or the president's leadership.
When Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor and friend, was suspected of burglarizing his own home in Cambridge, Mass., the president was blunt.
"The Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home," Obama said. "There is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact. "
The president was accused of commenting prematurely. The resulting beer summit between Gates and the police officer taught the Mr. Obama the limits of his own rhetoric and symbolic power.
Then came Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen killed by a neighborhood watchman in 2012. The president interjected, more than once.
"My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said. "Trayvon could have been me 35 years ago.
The shooting death of Michael Brown case introduced new caution. Mr. Obama used markedly tempered rhetoric Monday night, mixing deference to the judicial process with sympathy for the outrage.
"We need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make," Obama said in a statement shortly after the announcement. "There are Americans who agree with it and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It's an understandable reaction. "
America's first black president has willingly shouldered the burden of a nation fractured along racial lines. An example of genuine racial progress himself, Mr. Obama carries the unrealistic expectations of healing that divide. A president with a singular perspective is tested once more.