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President Obama silent on Chicago racial unrest

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Posted at 9:02 AM, Dec 10, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-10 11:02:35-05

President Barack Obama, long in pursuit of balance between outrage and reconciliation on issues of race and violence, is facing an infinitely more complex calculus in Chicago, where the streets of his hometown are filling with angry protests.

Unlike other cities where the combustable pairing of police brutality and systemic racism sparked nights of rage, Obama's ties to Chicago -- where he maintains a residence and where he'll build his presidential library -- run deep.

With his former top aide, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, facing increasingly loud calls to resign, Obama's strategy for now is to remain silent, citing ongoing Justice Department investigations into the police shooting that first prompted the protests.

"The President does have some limitations on what he can say on this manner, given that he is the President of the United States and an attorney general that he appointed is leading an agency that's conducting an independent investigation," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Wednesday.

Last week, Earnest said that "by commenting on this at great length, I think would be viewed by some as improperly interfering with an ongoing independent criminal investigation."

When protesters filled streets in Ferguson and Baltimore, Obama was similarly constrained by what he could say publicly given his administration's probes into the cities' law enforcement tactics.

But in those cases, it often seemed like he wanted to say more -- either to denounce ingrown racial biases where they appeared, or to demand incompetent officials step down.

This time, however, Obama finds himself confronting a different scenario.

Instead of previously unknown local officials, the calls for resignation this time are directed at Emanuel, his friend and first White House chief of staff. Protesters filling downtown Chicago streets have called for Emanuel to step down, accusing him of delaying for political reasons the release of a damning dashboard camera video showing police killing Laquan McDonald, the black teenager who was shot 16 times after he collapsed to the ground.

Obama's own home, in leafy Hyde Park, sits just 10 miles from the far grittier stretch of Pulaski Road where McDonald was gunned down by police more than a year ago. The planned site for Obama's presidential library -- which Emanuel spent much of his first term navigating sticky zoning rules to secure -- is near where another black man, Ronald Johnson III, was killed by police in 2014.

If Obama was left stifled after Ferguson and Baltimore, unable to demand greater accountability from those cities' leaders while investigations unfolded, he seems buffered this time around from uncomfortable questions about his former top aide's handling of police brutality -- a crisis that's led to the shakiest moment of Emanuel's decades-long career.

The White House says the President last visited with Emanuel during a trip to Chicago in October, but hasn't consulted the mayor about the recent protests. Last week, Earnest offered an equivocal assessment of Emanuel's handling of the episode.

"He's the mayor of the city, and he's got the responsibility for instituting the kinds of reforms that he himself has acknowledged are badly needed here," Earnest said. "And I think people will rightly judge him and his handling of these issues based on his response to this incident."

On Wednesday, Emanuel told a special City Council meeting he took full responsibility for the circumstances surrounding the teenager's death.

"I own it ... It happened on my watch," the mayor said during an emotion-filled address. "And if we're going to fix it, I want you to understand that it's my responsibility."

Last week, Emanuel fired the head of the Chicago Police Department, saying he'd become a distraction to the issues at hand. But the firing and the apology haven't stopped protesters from venting their anger in the streets, and continuing to call for him to step down.

One state lawmaker -- a Democrat -- introduced legislation that would allow for the recall of a Chicago mayor.

No one at the White House, let alone in Chicago politics, expects the famously combative Emanuel to leave his post anytime soon. He was re-elected in April, and his term runs until 2019.

But this year's mayoral battle, rather than a decisive victory for Emanuel, only reflected the deep-seeded racial tensions that persisted during his his first term. His main challenger was a fellow Democrat, Jesus Chuy Garcia, who garnered support from Chicago's Latino community. The race went to a runoff, despite a campaign trail appearance from Obama days before the general election.

"Everybody knows that he is passionate and he is tough and he is dogged in making sure that the city of Chicago is not just the coldest city, but also the greatest city," Obama said during a visit to Emanuel's campaign office in February.

Obama himself has weighed in on the Chicago situation only once, writing on Facebook in November he was "deeply disturbed" by police dashboard camera footage showing police shooting 17-year-old McDonald after he had collapsed on the ground.

"I'm personally grateful to the people of my hometown for keeping protests peaceful," Obama wrote.

But since then Obama hasn't said anything about the situation in Chicago. A slate of press conferences over the last two weeks focused instead on pressing foreign issues, rather than the situation in Obama's hometown.

Earnest said that even if Obama were asked, there is little he'd likely be able to say about the problems back home.

"It is the kind of thing that I think the President intends to speak about more freely once he is the former President of the United States," Earnest said. "But until then, his ability to communicate about this at great length is limited."