It was the president's willingness—in fact, apparent eagerness—to comment, based on partial information, that seems at the root of his problem. His supporters point out that, as an Illinois state senator, he had worked on legislation to limit racial profiling and that he considers himself an expert on the issue, which has special emotional relevance to him as an African-American.
Obama, the first black president, has mostly avoided racial issues. When he has addressed them, as in his speech to the NAACP July 16 (the same day that Gates was arrested), he has tried to heal past divisions and called for understanding. Many Americans have considered him race-neutral in his attitudes, according to Democratic pollsters, who say this has been a source of political strength for him among white voters.
[Read Obama's speech to the NAACP.]
But his comments at the news conference were blunt. He sided decisively with Gates, a friend whom he called "Skip," even though the president admitted that he didn't know all the circumstances. "Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that," Obama said. "But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home." He added: "What I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."
- See photos of Obama behind the scenes.
- Read Obama's Return to the Race Issue.
- See photos of Michelle Obama.
Updated on 7/24/09