In a surprise appearance at the regular White House briefing Friday, the president said he "could have calibrated those words differently."
Mr. Obama initially commented on Mr. Gates's arrest at a press conference Wednesday and then returned to the issue in an interview with ABC-TV on Thursday. Before the Friday's briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had signaled that he believed the president was likely finished speaking about the incident.
With this latest round of comments, Obama showed that he recognized that the controversy was not subsiding and that he could play a role in soothing tensions.
"In my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically," Obama said Friday. He continued to say that he believes Crowley to be "an outstanding police officer."
He was referring to the policeman who had arrested Gates last week for disorderly conduct after Gates was seen forcing open the door to his own Cambridge, Mass., home.
Police organizations, some of whom supported his election, had been vocally critical of his original statement.
While Obama sought to explain his earlier comments, he did not fully excuse either Crowley or Gates for their behavior.
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home and to the station," Obama said. "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Prof. Gates probably overreacted as well."
Friday's development cast more light on Obama's role as America's first black president and the fine line he has walked in dealing with race issues. In his remarks, Obama said he disagreed with criticism that he should have steered clear of a local issue.
"The fact that this had become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society," he said. "Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this ... is part of my portfolio."
Obama also expressed hope that the controversy could be a "teachable moment," where people could "spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities."
Ending his remarks on a light note, Obama said he and Crowley talked about having the three of them – Obama, Crowley, and Gates – get together at the White House for a beer. Crowley, he added, said he'd like to get the press off his lawn.
"I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn," Obama said. According to the president, Crowley then "pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn."
Later in the day, the White House confirmed that Obama had continued his mission of reconciliation by speaking with Gates, too. A White House statement read: "They had a positive discussion during which the President told Gates about his call with Sgt. Crowley and statement to the media. The President also invited Gates to join him with Sgt. Crowley at the White House in the near future."