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President Obama Defends Colin Kaepernick, but Also Kinda Doesn't

President Obama spoke about the Colin Kaepernick protest at a Town Hall last night.

Mike Vorkunov

Another solemn moment at an NFL game. Photo credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick's decision to take a knee during the national anthem has been well-covered and we've heard opinions from nearly everyone about it. It's started a movement and a cottage industry of hot takes and false equivalencies. So it was a matter of time until President Barack Obama had his opportunity to weigh in.

Although he initially addressed the protest earlier in the month, he was again asked about his thoughts on Kaepernick Wednesday night during a town hall. A first lieutenant proposed the question—not-so-subtly reminding the president that he is also Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces—saying that he believed the anthem was a time to respect service members. It's obviously a very well-populated opinion, though not a unanimous one, not even amongst those in the military.

Obama, not surprisingly, was circumspect. More than any president before him he is especially attuned to the perceptions and injustice toward race in America but he also understands that his words will be digested carefully. Fox News is just waiting to blast them out if he says one wrong thing that deviates from the mainstream. His response was especially centrist.

"I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation," he said. "And I think that for me, for my family, for those who work in the White House, we recognize what it means to us, but also what it means to the men and women who are fighting on our behalf. But I'm also always trying to remind folks that part of 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. And the test of our fidelity to our constitution, the freedom of speech, to our bill of rights, is not when it's easy, but when it's hard."

He added: "In a democracy like ours, there are going to be a lot of folks who do stuff that we just don't agree with. But as long as they're doing it within the law, then we can voice our opinion objecting to it, but it's also their right. 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."

His answer is what his answer is—possibly because of his hyper-awareness of the unique position he holds, speaking to a military man—but there was nothing wrong with his initial comments back on September 5th when he cut to the heart of it all during a press conference in China:

"My understanding is that he is exercising his constitutional right to make a statement...I think there are a lot of ways to do it. As a general matter, when it comes to the flag and the national anthem and the meaning that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us, that is a tough thing for them to get past to then hear what his deeper concerns are, but I don't doubt his sincerity. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about."

That is about as accurate and as fair a breakdown of the controversy as you're going to get, if only because it places responsibility for the reaction to the protest where it belongs—on those reacting—instead of wondering aloud whether the protest is poorly conceived.