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. Jay

    Obama forgot that he represents all Americans. Obama just saw colors while making a rush judgment without waiting for the actual facts.

    Is Obama really ready to lead our country? Is Obama just a great but naive orator who did not realize after 23 years that his pastor was a bad guy. But Obama did not even require the basic facts before declaring that the Police Officer was stupid because he was white.

    A really sad day for America.

    August 4, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  2. friedel

    It is way past time to put this debate to rest. He was asked a question in a press confrence that was about heath care. He gave an opinion that he saud he didn't know all the facts, while at that time maybe he should not have say anything, he stated an opinion. Now the issue is past and it is time to focus on issues that are far more worth of our interest rather than a dipute between to men that got way out of hand. And has now been resolved.

    August 4, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  3. jb

    When I was watching the conference live I was thinking 'please just don't get involved' but he did and he said something that will stay with his presidency for a long time. The disturbing part we find out now is that he had that questioned arraigned so he could show his home-town Chicago residents that he still is 'black enough' and he still understands their problems. Why, why, why would he arraign for that question to be asked? I bet you that the majority of the police force and even Crowley voted for Obama. I don't know really but there is a good chance.

    August 4, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  4. chris

    it looked like arrogance to me on national TV, especially coming from a public servant. Public officials need to be humble in front of public mass. Confident look is an old fashion trend, think twice before we speak.

    August 4, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  5. Nelson Colorado Springs Co.

    This is nothing new, just look at what was said about President Obama when he was running for president. Racism is apart of America as apple pie. It easy to say Two-thirds of whites say that a white homeowner would have been arrested for the same behavior but key is white are not black. Until you have been down that road. Racial profiling is a problem in this country. Race, will always be a problem in this country , but this country has come a long ways from 20 or 30 years but we have so far to go on racial problem.

    August 4, 2009 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  6. Steve

    As I understand it Gates did not provide a state issued identification when asked. Rather then give the Id he gave his Harvard Id, yet he had just come from the Airport so he had to have had his passport and likely ID with him.
    Plus rather than provide a state-issued id, he (and he admitted this) yelled, and cursed at the officer.
    If you are in your own home you should be able to provide a valid form of state issued ID.
    Those are the facts of this case, in my opinion Mr. Gates – an intelligent man, knew exactly what he was doing when he refused to provide proper ID, knew that he would trigger an arrest when he got out of hand. Judging by this poll most of America agrees with me.

    August 4, 2009 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  7. david

    professor Gates was guilty of a lack of common sense. he was also guilty of a lack of common decency. why treat an honest police officer rudely? its correct-the first amendment does allow people to voice even impolite, disrespectful and unfriendly opinions. when someone has reached the stature of a tenured professor, he should set a good example for all people. dont stand behind the first amendment as a reason for rudeness and impolite behavior. we all know that honest black people have been profiled unfairly in the past. this was not one of those cases.

    August 4, 2009 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  8. James

    If one reviews the facts that are published in the arrest warrant and caller to 911 callers atatement which never mentioned race at all and Sgt. Carowley's report he added all of the raciest issues. His statement states that the caller said two black men and she did not, he charged disarderly conduct in a public place and I do not believe that Mass. law ccalls a man's home a public place. The Sgt. is clearly raciest by his own report.

    August 4, 2009 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  9. Drew in Chicago

    I was always taught that you never disrespect a police officer (or authority in that matter). My father told me when I was younger that your mouth will put you in jail faster than anything else can... regardless of the situation. And you deserve to be arrested if you disrespect an officer, even if you are innocent.

    August 4, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  10. Pat Griffin

    They all acted stupidly. Mouthing off at a cop is stupid. Not illegal, but stupid - because the cop can stupidly overreact and arrest you. And Obama saying the cop acted stupidly was stupid. Sometimes it's stupid to tell the truth.

    August 4, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  11. Zavitkovsky

    Yes. Gates did not act as a PROFESSOR but vice versa – he acted STUPIDLY. No business for a President to say what he said. He rushed to make a stupid comment, not as a President.

    August 4, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  12. Tom L

    @Larry
    Please explain how this is racial profiling in any way, shape or form. They were told of a break-in, went to the house, found someone inside and questioned him. They did not find him on the street or in a car. This is a clear example of "wolf!" There definitely is racial profiling and it needs to be addressed. Howevere, this is not the case here. Also, wouldn't you say that the only racial profiling that went on was from Obama who made assumptions about a white cop????

    August 4, 2009 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  13. Robert, Miami, FL

    The whole thing was a thick mass of human error. It was magnified unnecessarily by a grandiose notion that you can be entitled to anger and outrage under circumstances that you have a "right" to define. That's the ego that got the ball rolling.

    Belatedly but finally the cooler heads did prevail, and people started showing their better side.

    Now, why undo the peacemaking that's been accomplished? Who is keeping the conversation focused on the moment when there was conflict, and why?

    Obama went out of his way to correct his part of it. The others involved have shown magnanimity and have walked away after shaking hands. The Professor sent roses to the lady who reported the incident. To me that caps the whole thing off. All's well that ends well.

    Let this go please.

    August 4, 2009 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  14. Meg

    Give him a break. He's learning. He'll be more careful with his words next time.

    August 4, 2009 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  15. Rose

    I am a white 56-year-old woman that lives in a predominantly black inner city neighborhood. My husband (who is also white) and I were pulled over by the police one night after returning home from a bingo game. We were 3 blocks from our house. The officers repeatedly questioned us as to where we going, where we had been, etc. They insinuated that we had drugs in the car and commented on a piece of cellophane that was in my backseat. It was the outer cover that had been on a Merle Haggard CD! After detaining us for 20 minutes we were finally allowed to go on our way. This is the kind of racial profiling we see everyday in our neighborhood.

    I can understand and relate to Professor Gates' reaction to the incident in his home. I think President Obama was correct in his analysis–it was a stupid arrest.

    August 4, 2009 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  16. Joe in DE

    He spoke without enough forethough. It reflected a bias against racial profiling which is easy to understand but not helpful.

    August 4, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  17. lynn in NM

    Yes, he didn't know the whole story and he opened his mouth and put his foot in it. Actually, both feet. As President, he is supposed to show a modicum of common sense. That didn't happen. No surprise there.

    August 4, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  18. Ben

    As soon as the reporter asked the question, I felt it was an ufair question to ask. Obama was speaking on healthcare issues, and taking questions on the like. The last question was about this controversy. Unfair. Sure, he could have chosen his words more carefully, but it was an ambush question, and people seem to have forgotten that.

    August 4, 2009 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  19. jwilkerson

    He surely acted stupidly! He should have keep his mouth shut,even if he knew all the facts. He thinks he can fix everything. He has no appreciation of what male and female police people go through each and every day on their jobs

    August 4, 2009 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  20. Geoff

    When you don't know all the facts then you don't comment. Obama is a lawyer – he knows how to avoid answering a question and he should of here. Crowley may or may not have acted stupidly. None of us know and neither did Obama.

    August 4, 2009 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  21. Cheryl in Bluffton, SC

    President Obama was speaking from the heart. He knew the cop had acted stupidly because he knew his friend didn't deserve to be arrested. I respect him for answering the question honestly.

    August 4, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  22. johnc

    No, you can't be disorderly in you own residence. That's why the charges were dropped so quickly! Bad arrest, after learning that it was Gates home, situation over. Mr. Gates was arrested for
    p.o.p! (making the police mad)

    August 4, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  23. Harley

    Why of course he did Obama did not KNOW the FACT'S, and he added to the Problem !!!! He should have STAYED OUT !!!!

    August 4, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  24. James

    Why do people keep claiming Gates didn't show his ID? Gates did provide his ID; even the full length version of the police report acknowledges that. But that wasn't good enough for Crowley. Gates angrily asked for Crowley's badge number. That's not a crime.

    August 4, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  25. nk

    Its incidents like this that make people not want to get involved. Next time someone is seen breaking into Gates' house, it is unlikely that anyone will report it. Next time, it may be a real burgler.

    Gates shouldn't have blown his top. The cop shouldn't have arrested him. Obama should have kept his mouth shut. All three contributed to this mess.

    August 4, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
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