A day after saying that police “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard University professor in his own home, President Obama appeared to soften his stance Thursday, spreading the blame more equally between the police and the arrested man.
Obama had previously implied during a news conference Wednesday that Henry Louis Gates Jr., his personal friend and one of the nation’s preeminent African American scholars, had been a victim of racial profiling by the police.
But Thursday, the president praised police officers and couched the incident as an unfortunate clash of tempers.
“I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do,” Obama told ABC News on Thursday in an interview for “Nightline.” “And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates, and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed.”
Obama also called the arresting officer in Cambridge, Mass., Sgt. James Crowley, an “outstanding police officer.”
The measured approach was in contrast to Obama’s statement’s Wednesday, when he made the most overt step of his tenure into racial politics, tapping into the very type of divide that he has assiduously tried to avoid.
Obama was unusually emotive and unequivocal when he answered a reporter’s question about the incident, which took place July 16 when Gates tried to pry open his own front door. Someone called police, who eventually arrested Gates for disorderly conduct, even after the professor had showed that he lived at the house.
Although Obama said that he did not know what role, if any, race played in the matter, he also seemed to welcome the opportunity to teach a larger racial lesson.
He used the question to recall his sponsorship as an Illinois state legislator of legislation to crack down on racial profiling, noting that “there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped” disproportionately by police.
“Race remains a factor in this society,” the president said.
A senior White House advisor said Thursday night that Obama’s comments were “from the heart, to a degree.”
“We didn’t practice the question. We rarely practice questions,” the advisor said.
The president’s comments marked a departure from his past practice of steering clear of racially charged topics that might have made some voters uncomfortable with electing an African American to the White House.
Even Gates, interviewed Thursday by radio host Gayle King, expressed surprise at Obama’s willingness to so quickly take sides in the dispute. Gates was not watching the news conference, but when he received a phone call alerting him that Obama had spoken of the incident, he said, “Oh my goodness, what did he say?”
Gates said that when he heard the full remarks, his reaction was: “My God.”
As a candidate, Obama defused the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. controversy -- the firestorm over anti-American remarks by his former pastor -- by delivering a speech on race that was generally viewed as sensitive to all sides, including whites fed up with policies such as racial preferences.
During the campaign, he said affirmative action should be applied on the basis of class and need, not race.
Obama also initially was cautious during his candidacy when the “Jena Six” case took the national spotlight. Black leaders were outraged that officials in Louisiana had charged six black teenagers with attempted murder, rather than a lesser offense, in the beating of a white student.
On Thursday, some black leaders hailed Obama for speaking honestly about racial profiling.
One black congressman, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who was stopped by a police officer a few years ago in what he said was a case of racial profiling, said that Obama was “right on the money.”
“I had the exact same kind of thing happen to me, only it was in an automobile,” Davis said.
Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said: “What the president said was honest and it was right. There is a long, sad history in this country of African Americans and other people of color being subjected to racial profiling.”
But despite the support, Obama seemed to return Thursday to his more moderated approach.
While he stood by his initial criticism of the Cambridge police, he downplayed the racial profiling issue during his ABC interview.
“I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home,” he said.
Others followed suit, avoiding the stark black-versus-white construction that seemed to loom so heavily the day before.
David Holway, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, sent a letter Thursday to Obama demanding an apology. He questioned whether Obama sided with Gates because he is a professor, rather than “merely a working-class police officer.”
The response from conservatives was also muted. Among the strongest criticism of Obama was a complaint that he should know more about the case before commenting.
“It’s always dangerous to comment when you don’t have the facts,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a former FBI agent. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former sheriff, said: “You want to make sure you have all your facts together before you comment on a case.”
Connie Rice, a black Los Angeles civil rights attorney who has played a leading role in reforming the Los Angeles Police Department, agreed that the Gates incident was not an obvious example of racial profiling.
“Racial profiling is when an officer makes a traffic stop or takes some other action based only on some bias they hold,” she said.
But, she cautioned, “that does not mean that there were not racial elements to what happened.”
The officer, Rice said, appeared to be acting more out of an “arrogance of power,” which could be in part racially motivated. And Gates, she said, seemed to manifest what she called “Black American Princess Syndrome.”
“This was the supreme humiliation for Henry Louis Gates, because he has achieved a rarefied status and the considerations that are usually afforded to him went right out the window when the officer arrested him,” Rice said. “In a minute, that cop erased all that Gates has had to work through to get where he is.
“That officer was not going to back down because he had been challenged and he would look weak,” she said.
“But Gates was not going to back down because that officer tripped every racial humiliation that Gates and his family have experienced since slavery.”
Times staff writer Joel Rubin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.