The president’s decision to weigh in on the arrest of his Harvard law professor friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., who mouthed off to a Cambridge cop threw a grenade into his health care PR offensive and revived questions about his promises of a post-racial presidency. He tried to defuse matters with a Friday appearance in the White House briefing room, but like his predecessor, he found it impossible to say “I am sorry” or “I was wrong.”
It is not surprising that the cable TV news and the Sunday talk shows continued to chew over the story. Unfortunately for the president, the comment was harmful on multiple levels. We can count at least five ways in which the story is a loser for Obama.
First, it suggests he is an uninformed busy-body. With a paucity of facts and no evidence of racism, he chose to opine on a local matter which otherwise would never rise to the level of a presidential issue. As Steve Chapman wrote:
Barack Obama got to be president because he had qualities Americans were yearning for after the bitter tumult of the Bush years. He was calm, sober, fair-minded, and guided by facts rather than emotions. He didn’t jump to conclusions, he didn’t ignore inconvenient evidence and he didn’t blunder into messes. That was the guy we elected last year, and right now, a lot of people miss him.
Second, he sucked the oxygen out of the health care debate at the very moment Democrats were pleading for him to become more involved. On the front pages of major newspapers, on TV news, and on every talk radio show the number one topic was: did Obama mess up on the Gates affair?
Third, Obama indisputably fanned the flames of racism and rekindled animosity on both sides by assuming or making this all about race. Juan Williams, on Fox News Sunday, did the country an immense service by recounting what exactly occurred: “The president spoke without the facts. You can’t have a ‘teachable moment’ if it’s based on a lie.”As Williams explained, in this case, the neighbor called the police, Gates began to berate the officer (“Do you know who I am?”), trash-talking about the officer’s mother and pursuing him out of the house. The black and Hispanic officers confirmed Gates’ abusive behavior, and Sergeant Crowley took out the handcuffs and warned Gates before finally having to cuff him.