LONDON — President Obama offered an indirect critique of the Black Lives Matter movement during a town-hall-style event here on Saturday, encouraging activists to engage with the political process and cautioning them that social change can be a slow and incremental process.
At a meeting with young people on the second day of his visit to Europe, during which he championed a new trade deal between the United States and the European Union, the president took questions on a variety of topics, including Northern Ireland, transgender rights and racial profiling.
After responding to a questioner who suggested that his administration had not done enough to address racial profiling at airports — a practice that Mr. Obama said he adamantly opposed — the president turned his attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
He praised the movement as “really effective in bringing attention to problems,” but said young activists should be more willing to work with political leaders to craft solutions instead of criticizing from outside the political process.
“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Mr. Obama said.
“And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,” he continued. “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.”
Mr. Obama began his career as a community organizer working on local initiatives in poor neighborhoods in Chicago. Sometimes, he said, solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions.
“You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment,” he said.
It was not the first time that he has cautioned Black Lives Matter activists that social change cannot happen overnight. In a private meeting at the White House in 2014, Mr. Obama told a group of young black activists that change was “hard and incremental,” one participant said at the time.
When some activists at that meeting said they felt that their voices were not being heard, Mr. Obama replied, “You are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the president of the United States.”