Obama Lectures the Country on Race, Economy

The president takes an academic approach in talking about race, healthcare, and the economy.

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It was Professor Obama who turned up at the president's latest news conference in the East Room—cerebral, methodical, and eager to elucidate the details of policy. Lecturing the country about its problems, from the economy to race relations, Obama argued that his ambitions for overhauling the health insurance system not only would improve medical care but would also drive down costs for families, businesses, and the federal government. He seemed intent on proving that he had mastered the issues to such an extent that Americans should trust him across the board, especially as he seeks to revamp healthcare, strengthen the financial industry, end the recession, and expand the federal role in society.

Obama acknowledged that Americans "feel anxious, partly because we've just become so cynical about what government can accomplish that people's attitudes are, you know, 'Even though I don't like this devil, at least I know it, and I like that more than the devil I don't know.' " White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Obama isn't troubled by the recent decline in voter support for his policies and, to some degree, for his job performance. He says Obama was elected to solve tough problems, and that inevitably entails alienating some people. Gibbs adds that if Obama's most important objective were to stay popular, "he'd play it safe" but that Obama won't do that.

The president even managed to maintain an instructional approach when he discussed the tough Republican opposition that imperils his agenda. "I understand how easy it is for this town to become consumed in the game of politics, to turn every issue into a running tally of who's up and who's down," he said. But he also noted: "This debate is not a game" for Americans who need help from the government.

In his fourth prime-time news conference since taking office in January, Obama departed from his academic style briefly when he was asked about the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Gates's home July 16. A white police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, responding to a neighbor's phone call that a burglary might be in progress, found Gates, who is black, inside the house after he forced open a jammed door. Gates showed the officer his identification, and an altercation ensued. He was charged with disorderly conduct, but the charges were dropped. Gates, a friend of the president's, portrayed the incident as racial profiling.

Obama said pointedly, "Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. 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." Obama continued: "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." It was his strongest display of emotion during the hourlong news conference.

But as the public debate over the incident and the president's blunt remarks intensified, Obama quickly backed off his initial support for Gates. The Friday after his Wednesday-night news conference, Obama told White House reporters that there was probably an "overreaction" by both Crowley and Gates. He admitted that he had chosen his initial words poorly when he said the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly."

 In a mea culpa, Obama said, "Because this has been ratcheting up—and I obviously helped to contribute to ratcheting it up—I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically—and I could have calibrated those words differently....To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate."

 One reason Obama moved to tamp down the controversy is because it was distracting attention from his healthcare proposals, which he is trying to promote in Congress and around the country.