What really makes Obama angry

In a comic riff at last weekend's White House Correspondents Dinner, President Barack Obama spoke alongside his "anger translator." His voice rose, and with it laughs from the audience, as he ripped political inaction on climate change.

Three days later he flashed a more genuine anger all on his own. The subject was rioting in Baltimore following the death of a young black man in police custody.

President Barack Obama.
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images
President Barack Obama.

"We, as a country, have to do some soul searching," Obama said Tuesday at a news conference with the prime minister of Japan. "This is not new. It's been going on for decades.

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"If you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty ... it's more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead, than they go to college," Obama said. "In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men, communities where there's no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away ... the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks.

"If we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there ... then we're not going to solve this problem," he concluded. "And we'll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets, and everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual."

The president's remarks during an event meant to highlight his push for an Asian trade deal illuminated the often-aloof chief executive's deepest frustrations with the profession he has chosen.

He disdains the news media's fleeting attention to headline-grabbing symptoms—riots—rather than systemic economic and social problems. He loathes the propensity of fellow politicians to "feign concern" rather than take action.

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He believes his agenda—on early childhood education, job training, infrastructure development, criminal justice reform, taxation—would make a difference. But he can only wheedle congressional cooperation on a tiny fraction of it. Only 21 months remain in his presidency.

The overlay of race confounds Obama even more. Only by appealing to voters in broad, nonracial terms was he able to shatter historical barriers and win two terms as the nation's first African-American president. Yet a succession of tragedies involving the deaths of young black men have led him to address America's age-old problems with race more forthrightly in what he calls "the fourth quarter of my presidency."

He has launched a White House "My Brother's Keeper" initiative to challenge communities to expand opportunity for young blacks and Hispanics. Related endeavors may loom as large in his post-presidency as international peace efforts have in Jimmy Carter's or global health and environmental challenges have in Bill Clinton's.

If so, Obama will be using his political celebrity to press for action outside the hardened, polarized lines of America's formal political processes. Now more than ever, the dysfunction of those processes makes him mad.