The President's Regret

Insofar as racial reconciliation goes, the promise of Barack Obama was that he'd be the guy who could bring warring factions to the same table, over a beer, and get them to understand each other.

If the election of President Obama momentarily defused ideological tensions in America, after six months of governing, they've resurfaced. Like the left and President Bush, the right in American has depersonalized Obama to the point where everything he does is wrong; that the only way to demonstrate this is to position yourself in complete opposition to wherever he is.  This frustrating yin-yang politics is one reason for the lack of faith in our political institutions. Perhaps it was naive for Obama to expect that it would be otherwise.

This morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs laughed at the notion that the president had any intention of apologizing to Sgt. Crowley or further commenting on the situation in Cambridge. One would assume that Mr. Gibbs's confidence came from a chat with the President himself. It has been easy to deflect responsibility onto the press. On Tuesday, Obama responded to a question from the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet as if Sweet was still chasing Obama around Springfield. He responded as a friend of Gates's; he responded in the context of a media environment that accepted Gates's narrative.   This was catnip to Republican ideologues, who astutely turned up the volume, -- hey, he hates cops! and to the media, who instantly created sides -- kind of like turning a circle into a square.

The last thing the President wanted was to provoke a debate about race that enhances the polarization. He was careful to say that he did not know whether race had played a role, but you'd be forgiven if you kinda thought that he did kinda think the answer the was that it. His original statement was prodding: come on, guys. We still DO this sort of thing in America? A Harvard professor gets arrested for being mouthy at a cop inside his own house?

Yesterday, Obama's back was still up. He wasn't going to apologize. The media and the right was making this story into something that it clearly wasn't -- Obama versus the cops -- and he had no intention of further feeding the frenzy.

There was a practical reason and a personal reason for backing down and delivering what amounts to a personal apology to a citizen -- a presidential bill of attainder -- a lose-face-to-save-faith gesture that is quite uncommon for politicians or people in public life.  Practically, it did distract the press corps; the president's bully pulpit power relies on the media at least being attentive to presidential messaging.

Personally, I think that once Obama saw how quickly the narrative of this complex story hardened into an intractable "racist/abuse of power cop" v "critics hate law and order" tale, his inner drive for reconciliation and consensus -- a drive that may be getting him into trouble on health care -- kicked in. I do know what some White House officials were worried that the public debate had taken on some dangerous overtones and were quietly arguing internally for a presidential clamp-down.

Obama may well have changed his mind: perhaps Gates misunderstood the cop as much as the cop seemed to misunderstand Gates.  Or -- and here is what I think Obama is getting at -- perhaps the events themselves ought to be left alone. Endless debates about race and power with reference to that one situation are going to be, well, endless. Crowley and Gates are reasonable, accomplished citizens who were reacting to a stressful situation full of unknowns.  Let that be -- and find a "teachable moment."

Interestingly, these types of Obama moments are exactly why the hard left tends to be suspicious of Obama's inner motives -- why would the President NOT use this teachable moment to excoriate the cops for racial profiling or excessive power, they ask -- and why the hard right has come to completely dislike the president -- and why the center -- the broad left, right and center-center -- is still entranced by the guy, even if they do have some questions about his policies.