(CNN) - After a week where President Obama initially appeared to try to avoid personal involvement in a national, racial controversy but then made the personal gesture of reaching out to former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, a one-time adviser told CNN Obama is comfortable with issues of race but is president “for all Americans on all issues.”
Earlier this week, Obama had a telephone conversation with Sherrod, who is African-American, after she resigned in the wake of the release of a videotape of a speech she’d given at an NAACP event in March. The portions initially published on the internet by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart made it appear that Sherrod was relating how she had not done all she could to help a white farmer. The subsequent release of a tape of her full remarks made it clear that Sherrod was recounting the story of her interaction with the white farmer and his wife well before she joined the USDA in 1986 as a way to explain how she got beyond race and began to see some issues that had a racial component as being driving instead by class and socio-economic differences.
Obama, who had initially supported the Agriculture Secretary's decision to ask for Sherrod's resignation, spoke to Sherrod by phone Thursday and expressed his regret. He also told Sherrod what happened to her "can present an opportunity for her to continue her hard work on behalf of those in need, and he hopes that she will do so," according to a White House statement.
Related: Sherrod fallout twists WH message from rah-rah to race
Christopher Edley, Dean of Boalt Law School at U.C. Berkeley and a member of the advisory board to Obama’s transition team before the president took office, was asked on CNN's State of the Union whether Obama was comfortable with issues of race. He answered without reservation:
“[A]bsolutely,” he told CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, “And [Obama] also recognizes the importance of leading on race. But we have to remember that he is the president of America for all Americans and on all issues. We expect him to lead on race but we expect him to lead on health care, on financial reform, as commander in chief, on immigration, on education.
“And those who expect him to be devoted night and day 24/7 to issues of race simply don't understand the job or his responsibilities. I think in many ways, the most important form of leadership that he provides is simply by being there every day. By being in the public eye.”
To make his point, Edley said he thought Obama’s presence in the Oval Office as the nation’s first African-American president was having a “deeply profound” impact on his two elementary-school-aged children and their generation “in terms of changing the kind of dreams that Americans can have about the future.”
Edley was joined in the interview by John McWhorter, contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Both men are African-American. Sounding off on the events of the past week when it came to Sherrod, McWhorter said he did not believe her treatment had been motivated by racial animus.
“And so I don't see, for example, the Shirley Sherrod issue as a matter of racism,” McWhorter said. “What was done to her was indefensible. But it's unclear to me upon what metric we can say that animus against her black skin was a decisive factor in the way things happened. It was just tacky and wrong. I don't call it racism.”
Edley agreed but said,“I do believe that the presence of race in the discussion makes it more likely that there will be missteps and more mishandled by the media and by politicians alike.
“Race is hard stuff. And it is hard, I think, in unique ways. This is not a matter of animus, it's simply a matter of difficulty. Difficulty even after hundred years - hundreds of years of trying to do better.”