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.
Williams asked, “Is this an instance of a poor black kid being beaten by the cops?” No. And in converting this into a tale of police misconduct (he acted “stupidly” Obama said) and racial injustice, Obama only re-enforced the country’s racial divide. Whites often think blacks scream racism at the drop of a hat; blacks think whites are out to get them. Good work, Mr. President.
Fourth, the underlying fault line in Obama’s presidency and his agenda is the growing sense that government is getting too big and is accumulating too much power. It is not just core Republicans who think government is doing too much, but an overwhelming number of independents who are irked by the Washington power grab. Obama, by meddling in a local matter and getting it all wrong, only fed the story line that he is out to boss us around, run our lives, and impose his left-wing perspective on every aspect of American life.
Fifth, Obama has fallen into the unfortunate habit of blaming others. He rails at the “Washington” chatter and doesn’t like the “24-hour news cycle.” His press secretary denies flubs rather than apologize. (What bow to the Saudi king? Nothing to see. Move along.) Once again Robert Gibbs was in full court accusation-mode, sniping at the media for making this story a bigger deal than it was. And again, even when in damage control mode, Obama couldn’t quite walk back his words. As Bill Kristol put it, “He is an arrogant man.” While he has a more sympathetic media than George W. Bush, it soon may sink in that this president is unwilling and unable to take the blame and say “I am sorry.”
The question remains whether all of this matters and how damaging it will be. Obama’s spinners declare it is all behind him. But others aren’t so sure. As Williams argued, his knee-jerk reaction to cry racism “hurt the country and it hurt him.” It was, to put it mildly, exactly what Obama didn’t need. A polarizing event — confirming the worst fears that he is arrogant, not at all post-racial, and prone to play last-and-loose with the facts — is not what he needed in the midst of the biggest political challenge of his young presidency. The stimulus is working, he is teaching us about race, and now he wants to run your health care. Not an attractive picture.