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‘Do you actually want to get something done?’ Obama criticizes use of ‘snappy’ slogans like ‘defund the police’

Former President Barack Obama.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Former president Barack Obama is urging young, progressive activists to rethink their use of “snappy” slogans like “defund the police,” which he says repel people that activists need to persuade in order to enact change.

Speaking with journalist Peter Hamby on a Snapchat show released Wednesday, Obama urged those who took to the streets over the summer to protest police violence to rethink their strategy and suggested use of the slogan “defund the police” is divisive.

“If you believe as I do that you should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you could use a snappy slogan like ‘defund the police.’ But you know, you’ve 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,” he said in the interview.

He said activists should instead push for specific changes like diverting young people from the criminal justice system and dispatching mental health workers instead of armed officers to handle certain situations.


“The key is deciding, do you actually want to actually get something done? Or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?” he added.

Progressives were quick to respond to Obama’s comments when they were first reported Tuesday. Representative-elect Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist who won a House seat in Missouri, said on Twitter that the situation was too dire to dismiss “defund the police” as a slogan.

Obama’s comments cut to the heart of an emerging debate within the Democratic Party in the wake of the November election, when the party lost seats in the House and failed to immediately secure the Senate. Some defeated House candidates blamed their loss on the “defund the police” campaign, though that claim drew pushback from progressives in the party, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who told the New York Times that losing campaigns were not “firing on all cylinders.”


“These folks are pointing toward Republican messaging that they feel killed them, right? But why were you so vulnerable to that attack?” she said. “If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders.”

Obama spoke to Hamby this week as he promotes his new memoir, “A Promised Land.”

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.