Former President Barack Obama cautioned young activists against using the slogan “defund the police” to achieve changes in policing practices, instead urging them in a new interview to have a more inclusive discussion to better enact changes.
In doing so, the former president, who still holds enormous influence in the Democratic Party and has voiced support for protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, is taking a strong stance on a contentious phrase that is a dividing point among Democrats, and speaks to the friction between the more liberal wing of the party and President-elect Joe Biden’s calls for a moderate path forward.
“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,” Obama told Peter Hamby on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” when asked what his advice is to an activist who believes in using the slogan although politicians are likely to avoid it.
“But if you instead say, ‘Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly, you know, divert young people from getting into crime, and if there was a homeless guy, can maybe we send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that could end up resulting in a tragedy?’ Suddenly, a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you.”
Obama, who previously said he would not defund police departments, said the key is for activists to decide whether they want to get something done or feel good among people they agree with.
“And if you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are,” he said and “play a game of addition and not subtraction.”
Other top Democrats, including Biden and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, have said they support changes to policing practices but warned the phrase – which generally calls for redirecting some funding from police departments toward social welfare programs – could be harmful to the movement and the party. Many progressives, however, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have touted the phrase.
The 44th President also provided a glimpse at how progressive and moderate Democrats can work together under an upcoming Biden presidency, noting that the party should “focus on talking about getting certain things done” instead of labels and ideology.
He called socialism a “loaded term” and offered a messaging strategy on Democrats can appeal to people, especially those who are young.
“Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both agree about raising the minimum wage. Nobody really cares about the label. They care that that is something that is important to a lot of young people and a lot of older people alike,” he said. “My advice for the Democratic Party is telling a story. Because people, young people, folks my age, people generally don’t listen to a bunch of policy analysis.”
Obama continued that people are moved by stories “that connect with their own lives” and not ideology, adding that “promoting young people is really important” when it comes to the Democratic Party.
“We stick so long with the same old folks and don’t make room for new voices,” he said.