Usually, when a careful politician is asked about a situation in which he does not know all the facts, he plays it safe with a simple “no comment.”
President Obama took a different path Wednesday night. When asked about the case of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was arrested last week for disorderly conduct after being accused of breaking into what turned out to be his own home, Mr. Obama allowed that he didn’t have “all the facts” – then declared that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.”
It was the last question of a prime-time news conference, in which the first 55 minutes were dominated by the theme of the day, health reform. The televised event was to be a high point in a carefully orchestrated week, in which Obama was pushing hard on healthcare.
Then the Gates incident came up. Obama became animated and actually answered the reporter’s question. He made news.
Washington pundits are divided on whether Obama made a mistake in actually saying what he thought – and muddying his healthcare message. Or whether ultimately it was a good thing that he waded bravely into one of America’s thorniest topics, race relations. Or maybe some of each. Usually, Obama avoids discussing race as he strives to play down the color of his own skin.
“He topped his own story, and that wasn’t very smart politics,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. “But when he answered that question, he reminded us that he’s our first African American president and that’s important. He feels these things.”
If nothing else, Obama’s comment has deflected attention from healthcare, his signature policy initiative.
Talk radio, cable TV, and the blogosphere have lit up over Obama vs. Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, and it has probably not done much for Obama’s standing among law enforcement.
In a gaggle with reporters on board Air Force One Thursday, press secretary Robert Gibbs fielded 13 questions about Obama’s remarks on Gates and racial profiling before a reporter asked about healthcare. Important negotiations on health reform had been proceeding all day on Capitol Hill.
But now a new story line is in full bloom: Where does Obama go now with the Gates brouhaha and with the question of racial profiling in general, an issue he spearheaded as a member of the Illinois legislature?
In an interview that will air Thursday night on ABC’s “Nightline,” Obama defended his criticism of the Cambridge police.
“I have to say that I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home,” Obama said.
Sergeant Crowley has refused to apologize for the incident. “I know what I did was right,” he told WEEI radio in Boston. Crowley has said that he didn’t know who Gates was and asked him to step outside his house when the situation became heated. The arrest charges against Gates were dropped.
Cambridge Police Commissioner Richard Haas defended Crowley at a news conference Thursday, saying he did not believe the officer behaved “with any racial motivation at all.” He also announced that a panel of experts would study the incident for any lessons.
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