The gaping chasm between the approach of the 44th and 45th presidents is hard to miss. But sometimes it’s easy to forget how different things were just a year ago. If you need a refresher, just listen to the two presidents discuss Colin Kaepernick.
Donald Trump built his campaign by exploiting racial grievances and has continued this approach as president.
At a rally in Alabama Friday night, Trump veered into an extended rant on the NFL, criticizing Colin Kaepernick and other players, nearly all African-American, who have taken a knee during the national anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!,’” Trump said.
He pantomimed the owners firing the players, pretending he was actually pointing his finger and carrying out the sentence himself. He encouraged anyone watching an NFL game who saw a player silently protesting to “pick up and leave.”
The issue first emerged on the national stage last year, when President Obama was in office. He addressed the controversy at a CNN town hall in September 2016.
The contrast is stunning. It’s like being transported into an alien universe.
First Lieutenant James Sutter stood up and argued to Obama that “lately, some players in the NFL have been choosing to take a knee during the national anthem, a time which I believe should be reserved to respect our service members.” Then he asked Obama, “As commander-in-chief, how do you feel about those NFL players choosing this typically respected time to voice their opinions?”
In a measured tone of voice, Obama said he believed that “honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation,” but noted that, “what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns.”
The test, Obama argued, “is not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.”
He then expressed empathy for both Kaepernick and his critics.
And I think that it’s also important for us to recognize that sometimes out of these controversies, we start getting into a conversation, and I want everybody to listen to each other. So I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.
The important thing, in Obama’s view, was that Americans try to understand and have a civil discourse with people who may have very different life experiences and perspectives.
“And one of the things that I always say about American democracy is, it can be frustrating, but it’s the best system we’ve got,” Obama concluded. “The only way that we make it work is to see each other, listen to each other, try to be respectful of each other, not just go into separate corners…”
If you want to hear more from Obama, here is the video of the full town hall.