On Monday, Barack Obama made his most definitive statement yet about activist calls to “defund the police”: do not, he advised, use the phrase “defund the police.” The backlash he got from progressive lawmakers focused on his apparent decision to treat the issue as a “snappy slogan” rather than a policy demand. But he did pass judgment on its policy merits — just obliquely, and without any clear interest in seeing it work.
Here’s what he said during his Monday appearance on Snapchat’s “Good Luck, America” show:
If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal-justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like “defund the police.”
But, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.
The most notable thing about Obama’s remarks is that they’re not directed at anyone who actually wants to defund the police. He is addressing people like himself: those who “believe … that we should be able to reform the criminal-justice system so that it’s not biased.” This is not the goal of the abolitionists who coined the term. They feel that such reforms don’t work, citing several, like bias training and chokehold bans, that have failed to prevent police violence from Minneapolis to Atlanta to New York City. For them, “defund” is a step on the path toward getting rid of police and prisons altogether — which they recognize, correctly, are impossible to abolish if governments keep giving them money.
Obama’s self-identification as a reformer, and his choice to address those who’ve adopted the “defund” label for their own idiosyncratic purposes rather than the abolitionists who originated it and use it earnestly, sends a clear message. He is not interested in defunding the police, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with his moderate brand of politics. It also means his suggestion that activists avoid the term altogether — that is to say, that they stop calling for the police to be defunded — is not just strategic counsel. It’s a statement of values. Obama and his fellow establishment Democrats have rejected “defund” on the basis of it being divisive and politically costly sloganeering. But their parallel and probably bigger concern is simpler: some people want it to happen, and they do not.
This clarification is useful for deciding what to do with Obama’s advice. Democrats like the former president are not alone in this preference; only 27 percent of American support it, according to a June poll from HuffPost and YouGov. The merits of “defund” proposals have been hotly debated since they entered the lexicon earlier this year, and are dismissed often by pundits and social scientists who insist that more police equals greater public safety overall. Potential alternatives are scarcely considered. Few of them engage with abolitionist thought beyond deriding its individual components — understanding it not as an invitation to think up new solutions to harm and redress, but as a sudden absence of institutional mediators, leading inevitably to chaos. Some of their assessments are made in good faith, while some are not. There’s reason for some confusion about activist intent; the abrupt introduction of calls to “defund the police” into a racially diverse, ideologically varied, and structurally decentralized protest movement has caused different proclaimers to freight it with their own meanings, as I’ve written before. But this adoption hasn’t changed the term’s original goal, which remains the most prominent, and has been the subject of several op-eds and analyses since. Crucially, it’s not a goal for which Obama is a reliable advisor, in part because Obama doesn’t wish to see it pursued.
What he and other establishment Democrats have transformed the proposal into instead is an electoral scapegoat. There’s been no definitive post mortem about why so many of the party’s down ballot candidates underperformed in the last election, despite Joe Biden’s decisive presidential victory. But one of the more common targets has been the fallout from activist calls to defund the police. This despite the fact that few of this cycle’s candidates actually endorsed the position, and that the examples cited are often people who lost by double digits, almost certainly for reasons unrelated to the “defund” movement. “Jaime Harrison started to plateau when ‘defund the police’ showed up with a caption on TV, ran across his head,” Representative James Clyburn told NBC’s Meet the Press last month, referring to Senator Lindsey Graham’s Democratic challenger in South Carolina. “That stuff hurt Jaime. And that’s why I spoke out against it a long time ago.”
It was also a lie — one that could be, and has been, deployed by Republicans eager to demagogue the electorate’s association of Black civil rights with the Democratic Party. This is as much a perennial Democrat dilemma as right-wing allegations of socialism. It’s also not a compelling reason for activists to stop asking for what they want — especially at the behest of Obama and company. The ex-president’s attitude toward youth protesters is well documented. His dismissal of stronger demands for political accountability and ethical standards as “ideological purity,” paired with his withering remarks about excessive “moral purity” in pursuit of criminal-justice reform, could have easily predicted his stance on the “defund” movement. The fact that so much of his post-presidency is defined by silence regarding President Trump’s routine abuses alongside growing vocality about how young activists are doing it wrong is more evidence of his sympathies.
The implications are clear. The merits of defunding and abolition are ripe for debate. But all sides would benefit from some clarity. Obama and company can start by being more forthright. Characterizing calls to “defund” as bad salesmanship by people who actually want modest reforms is a clear misrepresentation of the stakes. The honest approach would be to admit they don’t want the police to be defunded or abolished, that their goals lie in opposition to those of most defunding advocates, and move forward from there.