A national furor over race relations paused Thursday as President Obama, in a shady spot on the White House lawn near the Rose Garden, sat down for beers with a black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him two weeks ago.
For the two men who raised their mugs with the president and vice president -- both guests dressed in suits and ties and sitting stiffly in what was meant to be a casual moment -- the discussion of race and policing will go on. Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department said afterward that he and African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. had made plans to talk further in a more private setting.
But for Obama, the most anticipated happy hour in recent memory threatens to be little more than a timeout in an ongoing discussion over race in America. Last week, the president uncharacteristically helped escalate the debate by saying during a news conference that Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in arresting the black professor on disorderly conduct charges at his own home.
It was the most overt involvement yet by the country’s first black president in a racially charged matter, and Obama has tried over the last week to ease the controversy -- most notably by saying he regretted his choice of words and setting up what came to known as a “beer summit.”
Although police have dropped the charges against Gates, the question of whether he was arrested because he was black has become a national topic.
Thursday’s get-together had been described by the White House as a “teachable moment,” and it seemed designed to defuse the matter.
A small group of photographers and reporters was permitted to witness the meeting for about 30 seconds and from about 50 feet away -- transmitting to the world a snapshot of Obama, in shirt sleeves, seated at an oval table with the now-famous pair and Vice President Joe Biden, who was also in shirt sleeves and drank a nonalcoholic beer.
Gates and Crowley appeared to talk seriously, and, at one point, Obama gave a hearty laugh.
The officer and the professor later expressed appreciation for Obama’s invitation, even if they did not agree on the circumstances that led Crowley to handcuff Gates on July 16.
Crowley called the discussion Thursday “cordial and productive,” although he said he exchanged no apologies with Gates.
After the meeting, Gates posted a statement on the website he edits, the Root, saying: “We’ve learned that we can have our differences without demonizing one another.”
And in a written statement, Obama said he was thankful to Gates and Crowley for “joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation.”
“Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them,” his statement said. “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart.”
The president, however, has suffered in public opinion surveys because of his entry into the fray.
A new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 41% of Americans disapproved of Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest, and 29% approved. More ominous for the White House was the Pew finding that Obama’s job approval rating fell among whites as the Gates episode played out last week, from 53% midweek to 46% by the weekend.
The episode has proved politically challenging for Obama because he sided so quickly with Gates in connecting the arrest to the long-running debate over racial profiling, even as police disputed that race had been a factor.
African American leaders spoke out in support of the president’s initial comments, expressing appreciation that he was willing to dive into the racial profiling issue.
Police unions were equally vocal, expressing anger at Obama’s statement and arguing that Crowley, who was responding to a 911 call, had not acted on the basis of Gates’ race.
Both constituencies are politically important for Obama, and the White House has courted them carefully.
In an “after-action report” posted on the website of the Fraternal Order of Police, the group’s executive director said that the White House worked quickly after Obama’s remarks at the July 22 news conference to minimize his words’ damage in the eyes of law enforcement.
The White House asked the union to withhold criticism and alerted it that “all other police groups had committed to remain silent on the issue,” the report said.
The Fraternal Order of Police criticized Obama anyway, and Executive Director Jim Pasco said Thursday that, with or without the beer summit, “no reasonable person” could view Crowley’s behavior as being related to race.
If Obama sees the White House get-together as a form of closure, he could disappoint black voters, his most loyal constituency.
“The great fear is that . . . he got so much blow-back and now he’ll shut up,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles civil rights activist who hosts a weekly radio show on African American issues. “The fear is that he’ll never say another thing about anything that could be construed as a racial minefield.”