Uproar over Obama comment on Kamala Harris: political correctness run amok?

President Obama sparked a mini-tempest when he called California's Kamala Harris the 'best-looking attorney general in the country.' At least he also called her brilliant, dedicated, and tough.

Richard Vogel/AP/File
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles, Nov. 2012. President Obama praised Harris for more than her smarts and toughness at a Democratic Party event Thursday. The president also commended Harris for being 'the best-looking attorney general' during a Democratic fundraising lunch in the Silicon Valley.

So President Obama thinks California’s Kamala Harris is “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” But does he deserve all the grief he’s getting for saying that out loud?

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Friday, usually an Obama-friendly zone, the president came in for some criticism over his comment the day before at a fundraiser near San Francisco for the Democratic National Committee.

“I’m sure he meant to pay her a compliment … but quite frankly, it just divides women and it just divides people up to separate them by looks and probably was a little ham-fisted,” said host Mika Brzezinski. “I think he made a mistake.”

Under the headline “Obama in Need of Gender-Sensitivity Training,” Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine writes: “Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse.”

Furthermore, for a president who has become a “cultural model” for supporters, Mr. Obama set an example that is “disgraceful,” Mr. Chait adds.

Well.

Was the comment really that bad? Before he weighed in on Ms. Harris’s looks, Obama in fact signaled that he knew he was about to say something politically incorrect.

“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake,” Obama said. “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country – Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”

It’s also worth noting that before Obama’s shout-out to Harris, he commented on the physical appearance of a member of Congress who was also there.

From the White House transcript: “A good friend of mine, somebody who you guys should be very proud of, Congressman Mike Honda is here. Where is Mike? (Applause.) He is around here somewhere. There he is. Yes, I mean, he's not like a real tall guy, but he's a great guy.”

Basically, this is all taking place at a swanky fundraiser in Atherton, Calif. – at the home of Levi Strauss heir John Goldman – and the president is relaxed and jovial, and just saying what he thinks. The republic will not fall over this. And it’s not as if Obama has a reputation as a skirt-chaser, as did some of his predecessors.

But what about his wife, first lady Michelle Obama? In a TV interview Thursday, Mrs. Obama slipped and referred to herself as a “single mother.”

“Believe me, as a busy single mother – or, I shouldn’t say single, as a busy mother. Sometimes, you know, when you’ve got a husband who is president, it can feel a little single. But he’s there,” Mrs. Obama told Vermont CBS affiliate WCAX.

Mrs. Obama was talking about the challenge busy working moms face in feeding their kids healthy food. We’re not sure if she was speaking before or after her husband’s comments on Harris, or if she had heard what he said.

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