At picnic, Obama will be serving beer for a reason

The president's choice of beverages is an attempt to erase cultural lines between Gates and Crowley – and to strike a folksy note with Americans.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about Cambridge Massachusetts Police Sgt. James Crowley and Henry Louis Gates Jr., July 24, at the White House in Washington.

The country’s first black president has decided to address the thorny issue of race in America with a new kind of question: What’ll you have?

President Obama’s offer to sit down at a picnic table to hash out a touchstone racial conflict between his good friend, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley, the man who arrested Gates for disorderly conduct, is certainly one of the most unusual presidential overtures in modern history.

But the president’s picnic table diplomacy speaks to Mr. Obama’s ability to leave behind his often-professorial persona and connect with the American people, political experts say. He has already managed to ratchet down tensions with police officers that he himself stirred when he said Crowley acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates.

Remember, “[his opponents] tried the Joe Sixpack attacks in the last parts of the campaign, but here’s a man ripping a can off that pack,” says Bruce Gronbeck, director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.

The White House lawn session scheduled for Thursday is part political theater, of course. Critics say it’s a folksy way to brush away a topic that has become a political liability and has threatened to upstage the healthcare debate.

“These two old friends, Obama and Gates, are going to have a beer and dance around this issue,” says Ward Connerly, director of the American Civil Rights Institute, which advocates ending racial preferences. “There will be no national debate about it. The point is to come away with Obama having as little political damage inflicted on him as possible.”

Moreover, it’s not as if the event will necessarily take all the awkwardness out of the issue. The task before the three men is difficult, says Deborah Hellman, a law professor at the University of Maryland, who has been watching the episode unfold.

“It’s not just about them exchanging stories about what happened,” says Professor Hellman. “Gates is bringing his experience that he and others have had of suspicion being heightened because they’re black, and the white police officer is bringing his feelings about the good intentions of the police.”

Still, the offer to hash things out brings the issue across class lines, says Mr. Gronbeck – in one stroke erasing some of the cultural divides between an Ivy League politician, a preeminent scholar on racial issues, and a blue-collar cop from Boston.

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