DALLAS — President Barack Obama extolled the five police officers slain in Dallas as examples for Americans to follow, talking at length Tuesday about their service before calling on divided Americans to listen more to one another and argue less out of anger.
"Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves," Obama said. "They weren't looking for their names to be up in lights."
One, Brent Thompson, was a former Marine who worked as a contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan and had married just two weeks ago, Obama noted. On Thursday night, Thompson and the other officers gunned down were protecting protesters' right to assemble, upholding the Constitution, the president added.
"Despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact there must've been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were," he said.
"I'm here to insist we are not as divided as we seem," Obama said. "I know how far we've come against impossible odds."
The task before Obama in Dallas was one of the most difficult he has faced in speaking out on racial conflict and criminal justice. Although it wasn't the first time he has asked the public to honor the sacrifices of law enforcement and join calls from activists for police fairness, never has he faced such a pressing need to do both at the same time. The country is simultaneously mourning the shooting deaths of black men in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., and, during a subsequent protest march, the ambush killing of five police officers in Dallas.
Obama is looking at his role as a ministerial one, aides say. He and first lady Michelle Obama were joined by former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush at the interfaith memorial service for the police officers. Obama also asked the former president to come with him to meet privately with the victims' families.
But prominent black intellectuals have asked in recent days why Obama is going to Dallas but not to Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights. The itinerary suggests that Obama sees an "equivalency" between what black and white America are experiencing after last week, said Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr.
"He sounds like he's trying to convince white people of the fact that black people are mourning and grieving, as opposed to speaking directly to black people," Glaude, chairman of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, said on MSNBC on Monday.
Obama called the families of the two slain men from aboard Air Force One en route to Dallas, according to the White House.
Yet Obama also hasn't done enough to show his support for the police following the Dallas shooting, said Colten Miller, 25, who attended a vigil for the fallen officers in downtown Dallas late Monday, blocks away from where the president appeared.
"When Prince died, the White House was purple. With Orlando, it's rainbow. When these guys died, it was nothing," said Miller, who works in construction and lives in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite.
Clayton Gumowski, 28, of Richardson, another Dallas suburb, said he was frustrated by the president's "lack of leadership, blaming guns instead of the madman."
Gumowski, who works for AT&T, brought a "thin blue line" U.S. flag colored blue to the vigil in solidarity with police.
Mike Taylor, 37, of Forney, Texas, a retired corrections officer, said the president has allowed a "double standard" for Black Lives Matter protests versus those by other groups, allowing them to continue even after they clash with police.
"There will be more incidents like this, I think," he predicted. "When the protests turn from a peaceful protest to a riot and shooting, you're encouraging it."
Speaking with reporters in Spain on Sunday, Obama affirmed the frustration that black communities feel in the face of institutional racism but decried any impulse to attack officers.
"Whenever those of us who are concerned about fairness in the criminal justice system attack police officers, you are doing a disservice to the cause," Obama said at a stop in Madrid.
Law enforcement officials and community leaders must "listen to each other" to bring about lasting change, he said.
In reform movements, there will always be people who make "stupid or imprudent or over-generalized or harsh" statements, he said.
"I would just say to everybody who's concerned about the issue of police shootings or racial bias in the criminal justice system that maintaining a truthful and serious and respectful tone is going to help mobilize American society to bring about real change," he said. "And that is our ultimate objective."
Obama has talked repeatedly in recent days about honoring law enforcement and convened a task force in 2014 to address divisions between police and the communities they're sworn to protect. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who has made a political career out of fighting violence and gun crime and was also at the memorial service, met Monday with law enforcement groups, the White House said.
As for Obama's own role, if his voice is "true," he told aides, he can help the country work toward unity.
"That's not going to happen right away, and that's OK," as Obama put in a conversation with reporters while traveling in Europe this weekend.
"We plant seeds, and somebody else maybe sits under the shade of the tree that we planted," he said. "And I'd like to think that, as best as I could, I have been true in speaking about these issues."
(Los Angeles Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Dallas and Michael A. Memoli of The Tribune Washington Bureau in Madrid contributed to this report.)