August 4th, 2009
06:52 PM ET
5 years ago

CNN Poll: Did Obama act stupidly in Gates arrest comments?

President Obama said 'the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody'.
President Obama said 'the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody'.

WASHINGTON (CNN) – A new national poll indicates that white and black Americans don't see eye to eye on last month's arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, released Tuesday, also suggests a racial divide over President Barack Obama's initial comments on the incident.

Fifty-four percent of those questioned in the poll say they don't think Cambridge, Massachusetts police office James Crowley acted stupidly when he arrested Gates at the professor's home after Crowley responded to a call that someone was breaking into the house. One in three say they think Crowley did act stupidly. But there's a major racial divide, with 59 percent of black respondents saying that Crowley acted stupidly compared to 29 percent of whites questioned.

Just over half of those polled feel that Gates acted stupidly, with three in 10 saying no. Broken down by race, 58 percent of whites say Gates acted stupidly, with African-Americans split on the question.

The arrest sparked a national discussion on the issue of racial profiling, which was amplified when President Obama weighed in on the matter. In a prime time news conference last month, Obama said "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."


Two days later, after criticism from police unions and after speaking with Crowley, Obama attempted to defuse the dustup. "Because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. (James) Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley."

Fifty-four percent of those questioned say they think the president acted stupidly when the commented on the Gates arrest, with 32 percent disagreeing. But again, the poll indicates a racial divide, with more than six out of 10 whites feeling Obama acted stupidly but just one in four black respondents agreeing.

Six out of 10 approve of how the president's handled race relations, with nine out of ten African-Americans and 56 percent of whites approving.

Did Obama's initial comments damage his political standing?

"One-third of whites say that Obama's comments about this matter made them feel less favorable toward him, compared to only four percent of whites who feel more favorably toward Obama due to his comments," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "But the majority of whites say that Obama's comments did not affect their views of him, and most whites approve of how Obama is handling race relations."

Fifty-two percent of Americans feel racism among police officers is common, with 44 percent saying it's rare. Whites are split on that question, with 86 percent of black respondents feeling racism among police offices is common.

Two-thirds of whites say that a white homeowner would have been arrested for the same behavior. Only a quarter of blacks agree.
"That difference may be due to life experiences - more than half of blacks say they have been treated unfairly by the police because of their race but only a handful of whites report the same kind of treatment," adds Holland.

The poll indicates that both blacks and whites believe that Friday's beer summit at the White House was a good idea. But was it a "teachable moment," as mentioned by the president?

"Not according to the public - blacks and whites agree that the whole controversy did not teach Americans a lesson that will lead to better race relations," says Holland.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted Friday through Monday, 7/31-8/3, with 1,136 adult Americans - including 226 African-Americans and 773 whites - questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the overall sample and plus or minus 6.5 percentage points for the breakdown by race.

Click here for full results (pdf)


Filed under: Extra • President Obama
soundoff (304 Responses)
  1. Lisa in Shelton

    Had the professor provided the ID when asked the cop would have moved on; had the president taken a moment to clarify the details before making his comment he would not have had to do any backpedaling or luncheon hosting. It is nice to support your friends in the midst of scandals; and unwise to make blanket statements about groups of people esp. during a media frenzy – our president should have remembered that. Our police officers deserve respect and Crowley was responding to a report of a break-in; Gates chose to escalate rather than placate.

    August 4, 2009 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  2. Sean - Texas

    To sum it up, Gates, Crowly, AND Obama all acted stupidly. However, the only racists in the bunch were Gates and Obama. Crowly wasn't a racist, just a power tripping cop.

    August 4, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  3. Legalsoldier

    Yes, he acted STUPIDLY! THe police SGT should have walked away once he realized that Gates lived there. Mr. Gates had no reason to scream Racial Profiling; that was not the case.

    August 4, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  4. mike

    Obama should not have racially profiled the arresting officer. He should have kept his mouth shut until he knew all the facts.

    August 4, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  5. jim

    T:
    The question was "Did Obama act stupidly", not Sgt Crowley. The answer is, obviously, yes! He is daily losing popularity, which he is going to need desperately to get his programs through Congress. This was bound to cause a drop in his public standing no matter which side he took. He had the perfect excuse for keeping his mouth shut, that being that he didn't have all the facts, and he didn't use it. Now THAT was stupid.

    August 4, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  6. Bev - NYC

    President Obama did not act stupidly. He is a black man in America, before he was President I'm sure with that big afro he was probably profiled once or twice. My brother is a state trooper who gets foul language at least once during his shift because self entitled people feel the road belod to them. He has never arrested anyone over their lip service. After hearing the 911 call where race was only casually mentioned with the caller saying she did not see the men, I am more inclined to believe professor's Gates' account rather than Sgt Crowley's, who's report read like a CYA. Professor Gates provided ID and proved that he was in his own home, if Sgt Crowley is that thin skinned he could have issued a disorderly citation. Dragging him downtown in cuffs just because he could was over the top and the President said so. If he dodged the question there would have been outrage about that. Damed if he does or dosen't.

    August 4, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  7. Raymond

    This is an interesting topic because:

    1. He did act stupidly. He spoke without knowing all the evidence.

    2. He did say the truth in that there is a racial problem in America. In this case it happened on Gates behalf. The officer did not arrest him out of racial profiling. Gates was offended because he was black and felt he was being wrongly arrested when he wasn't. He was being arrested for being beligerant to a police officer (something that white people get arrested for all the time).

    August 4, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  8. Burly

    How can you "name-call" when you admit that you have are biast and that you do not have all the facts? Obama acted childishly and unpresidentially ... and he will pay for it at the polls.

    August 4, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  9. A B C

    President Obama should not have commented, BUT when the Officer saw I.D. that it was gates house, Crowley should have said ( I'm sorry but there is a mistake and have a nice day ) END OF STORY.

    August 4, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  10. David from WI

    Yes, he said he didn't know all the facts and he STILL commented on it and said the police acted 'stupidly'.

    Now Bill Clinton goes over to N Korea and the journalists get pardoned. (I am sure there were more talks but .. come on) Pres Obama gonna try to take credit for this?

    What does the Japanese, S Koreans, Chinese think of this? There is a reason there were six party talks in the first place for the nuke talks. Oddly this doesn't, necessarily, look good for the administration looking at the big picture.

    Good for Pres Clinton, but what did we give up? What did N Korea get for their extortion? Let the games,begi....., continue.

    August 4, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  11. Franco

    ABSOLUTELY Obama acted stupidly. He chose to side with his black friend void of all the facts. NO teaching moment since all three adults left the "beer summit" to agree to disagree. "Racial profiling" will remain in the American political landscape since blacks/whites see it from their own prism of prejuduce. No one , except God, can read the heart or the intent of those involved. That is why I find "hate" crime legislation as ludicrous. How does one adjudicate hate or love?

    August 4, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  12. Dave

    Obama acted stupidly when he went on late night television and made fun of disabled people. This whole gates thing is just obama showing his true racist/anti-American colors. I would not call it stupid I would call it depressing.

    August 4, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  13. peter vaguely

    No, the President did not act stupidly. He said what he thought when asked a question. It is fascinating, however, that in 8 years of the Bush Administration I cannot recall a single time when CNN asked if Bush acted stupidly. Which is ironic because, of course, he did...often.

    August 4, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  14. Derrick Wayne Martin

    No, he did not act stupidly at all. It was very stupid of the police to arrest Gates in that situation. He was only calling it like he sees it. Some people still want to believe every word that Crowley said even though it is obvious that he lied in his police report. The real victim is the caller who everyone thought was racist based on Crowley.

    August 4, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  15. Larry

    Yes, as president he should have stayed above the fray. And I am all for President Obama, he should have apologized ,and admitted it was stupid of him to have made such a comment.

    August 4, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  16. mypitts2

    He acted emotionally, as human beings do sometimes, even presidents. But it's a shame that the larger issue - the police arresting someone for talking on his own property - has been lost in all this.

    August 4, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  17. harry

    A better question is how Obama came to hear of the "situation". Did Gates, his personal friend call the White House? How came our leader to make an off the cuff remark without his teleprompter?

    August 4, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  18. Ken in NC

    It is my opinion that President Obama spoke out of order concerning the Gates arrest. He is human and made a mistake. It is my opinion that Sgt. Crowley over stepped his authority in the Gates arrest and his actions were prompted by the actions of Prof. Gates. I also feel that Prof. Gates was out of line also and caused his own arrest by being belligerent in his own home to the officer that was attempting to assure that the home was safe for him to occupy. Sgt. Crowley was pushed to exert his authority as a police officer and Prof. Gates was pushed to exert his authority and the home owner. Both were right and wrong and both should have shown more restraint and President Obama never should have stepped into that pile of POO.

    August 4, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  19. Barbara

    President Obama was asked the question. Instead of answering in political garbage he answered as one who comes to the table with insight into racial issues. Take a look around at all the idiots saying he was not born in the U>S>-What a bunch of garbage! What a waste of valuable time that should be spent on the dire issues of health care, economy, etc. The President skillfully turned the incident into a teachable moment for all of us. We should follow his example-and the examples of the Professor and arresting officer.

    August 4, 2009 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  20. freda

    I don't hear a big deal being made by Crowley about lying in the police report about "two black men". Was that "acting stupidly?" Officer Crowley was probabaly intimidated by Professor Gates because he was not afraid to speak up for himself.

    The Media should leave it alone since all seems well and the three involved seem to have no hard feelings – mistakes made – lessons learned.

    August 4, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  21. Ann, California

    The President was correct when he said the police acted stupidly for arresting Gates in his own home. It seems to me it was a clear case of abuse of power. He should have left the property after it was clear Gates was the owner and there was no break-in, no matter how irritated he may have been at Gates. The professor broke no laws. ABUSE OF POWER!!!!!

    August 4, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  22. Audrey in Georgia

    NO. President Obama gave his opinion. It was a teachable moment.

    August 4, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  23. Indigo4

    Racial profiling is a problem in this country, but I think the bigger problem in this situation (and in this country) is that police tend to act as if any "talking back" is a reason to arrest someone. Neither disliking someone's attitude nor their tone of voice is good reason to cuff them and take them downtown. Police should be calming down a situation like this, not arresting people who are upset and being a little loud but not dangerous.

    August 4, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  24. STARR

    no he did not act stupidly. some people in this country or world don't realize what is happening. everyday you see people of different ethnic backgrounds entering this country. back in the bibical days there were no black or white. this world is becoming a melting pot of races. exactly how it was supposed to be. you think you can divide and treat people any kind of way you want to. think again.

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR PRESIDENT YOU ARE DOING A GREAT JOB....

    .

    August 4, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  25. donttreadonme

    There is no debating that Obama was politically stupid for commenting without the facts and hurt himself in the eyes of many.

    I find it interesting that race was the first thing that entered Gates mind. Maybe he spent too much time studying "racism" and he can no longer discern between the past and the present.

    August 4, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
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