April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
2 years ago

Obama apologizes for quip, which some called sexist

(CNN) – California's attorney general received an apology call from President Barack Obama Thursday after he told a crowd of Democratic donors she was "by far the best-looking attorney general."

"The president did speak with Attorney General [Kamala] Harris last night after he came back from his trip," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told CNN's Brianna Keilar at Friday's briefing. "He called her to apologize for the distraction created by his comments."

The remark came during a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in the Bay Area. No video cameras were allowed inside.

"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake," Obama said, adding: "She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."

The quick remark launched a thousand conversations about successful women and their looks. For some, Obama's observation brought to mind countless instances of women being judged for their appearance rather than their aptitude. But others saw something different – a harmless compliment – and wondered when it became sexist to tell a woman she's beautiful.

"They are old friends and good friends and he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general's professional accomplishments and her capabilities, and I would note that he called her in those same comments brilliant, dedicated and tough. She is all those things," Carney continued, noting her work on mortgage settlements.

Obama "fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workplace," Carney continued.

MORE: Getting to know Kamala Harris

Harris' communications director Gil Duran said in a statement, "The Attorney General and the President have been friends for many years. They had a great conversation yesterday and she strongly supports him."

The 48-year-old Harris was elected to her post in 2010, after serving as district attorney in San Francisco. She has a law degree from the University of California and went to college at Howard. Her tenure in law enforcement has included a tough stance on hate crimes, and the unusual prosecution of parents of truant children. Harris is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, and many wonder whether she's considering a bid for California governor in 2018.

Those attributes, some said, should have been on Obama's mind, not her looks.

"Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse," Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine.

"It's not a compliment," Chait continued. "And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he's setting here is disgraceful."

Others cast the remark as another example of Obama fostering a "boys club" attitude among his aides, who have been accused in the past of creating a bad work environment for women.

"It actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women," former Obama aide Anita Dunn said in a book on the Obama administration, "Confidence Men," by Ron Suskind.

That perception was fueled earlier this year as Obama made a fresh round of Cabinet appointments for his second term. The first names he picked – Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, John Brennan, and Jack Lew – were all white men.

But while many shook their heads at Obama's remark in California, many others were equally confused at the backlash.

The prevailing sentiment: when did complimenting a woman – particularly a friend - on her looks become sexist?

"Judging by some of the comments I've seen on Twitter you'd swear the president was guilty of luridly cat-calling a woman he doesn't know," Jonathan Capehart wrote in the Washington Post. "If I thought for one moment that's what was going on, you better believe I'd hammer him for it. But that's not the case here. Far from it. So lighten up, people."

A third set wondered about all those other attorneys general in the country, smarting from the knowledge the president might be sniffing at their looks.

While no one argued with Obama about Harris' status as the "best looking attorney general" Thursday, a colleague back home might take issue: Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau is Delaware's attorney general, and his name means "beautiful" in French.

What do you think? Was Obama's remark sexist? Or just a compliment? Sound off in the comments section below.


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (1,288 Responses)
  1. Erik Conrad Randall

    Apparently he should have said, "clearly she became Attorney General on her merits, because it certainly wasn't because of her looks."

    April 5, 2013 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  2. Carol Johnson

    Anyone who wants to call the compliment he paid the attorney general is only an anti-Obama person or they want to try to disparage all he says or they think they can damage his reputation by criticizing him.
    It was compliment and I believe the attorney general took at that way.
    If women do not want to look pretty and have people notice, THEN WHY DO THEY SPEND SO MUCH TIME IN FRONT OF THE MIRROR PUTTING ON MAKE-UP SO THEY LOOK AS GOOD AS POSSIBLE!
    Then if no one notices, what have they accomplished!!!

    April 5, 2013 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  3. Jay Dubbe

    Look, I didn't vote for Obama, but this is ridiculous. Big deal. He was being complimentary. Non-issue. Take note , Democrats....so that next time, when a Republican does the same, you don't go into outrage mode.

    April 5, 2013 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  4. RealMcCoy

    Well, let's face it. WHATEVER the President says will always be WRONG. People are more interested in finding fault in EVERYTHING he does rather than just take it for how he meant it.

    April 5, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  5. Why Why Why

    This is news because fat ugly women have loud voices.

    April 5, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  6. m1234

    The feigned indignation at the feigned indignation shows what a hack piece for Obama this is.
    The same words from someone else would be cause for great accusation
    But from Obama, it's cool.
    You all show your true, lemming sheeple colors
    Good job part of the 51% mo ron vote

    April 5, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  7. Sniffit

    "This feigned indignation is laughable."

    Indeed, but the MSM is desperate to help the GOP/Teatrolls stay viable after they do things like call the majority of women baby murderers and accuse them of supporting "infanticide." They won't have as many controversies to sensationalize if one party goes down in a blaze of its own stupidity.

    April 5, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  8. SnottyNozeBratt

    He made her contribution about showing up looking good. Its inappropriate in a professional environment.

    April 5, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  9. child of midian

    Freaking liberals need to lighten up!

    ... and I call myself a liberal...

    April 5, 2013 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  10. summer

    I support Obama but with the separate vacationsand Michelle calling herself a single mom I am starting to think they need therapy. Tiger rubbed off.

    April 5, 2013 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  11. Lisa Adams

    There is nothing wrong with paying someone a compliment. This is just out of control. If by chance a female or male person that sees beauty in another, can they not compliment on that beauty the other has? Its just a compliment from one to another. Nothing more or less. People are just so quick to judge, Weather you like him or not, it was a simple compliment, and why dont you put yourself in his place? He paid her a wonderful compliment on her outer beauty.
    Its nice to be told your good looking or your pretty once in awhile. Pretty soon we wont be able to smile at each other!, because that will be made into

    April 5, 2013 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  12. Lynda/Minnesota

    @Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I thought I'd check in and say "hi". Saw your comment to Larry. Freaking unbelievable this particular thread is hitting the 500 comment mark.

    The things that get GOPers riled up and off their rockers is ... well ... I'm actually speechless.

    And no. I have no interest in reading the comments. The content is always the same, old same old malarky.

    April 5, 2013 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  13. 1Psychnurse1

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It was a nice compliment. Women who take care of themselves and try to look good, appreciate a compliment once in a while. I personally enjoyed them when I was younger. People still occasionally mistake me for my son's wife. I still love it, but my son, well... Some people obviously have nothing better to do than nitpick every single word the President says or anyone else that doesn't meet their particular specification. Geez, she is a very intelligent person, who happens to be very attractive. Get a life and go buy a cigar...

    April 5, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  14. Anonymous

    I think that by far the most amazing thing was that he had enough time BETWEEN campaign stops to call her.

    April 5, 2013 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  15. michaeledmund

    I find it impossible to believe that the President's intent was anything other than offering a compliment to a long time friend. If people would spend as much time doing the same instead of nit picking and conducting micro-analysis of everything the President does and says it would make their lives a lot more pleasant along with those around them.

    April 5, 2013 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  16. wonderful human being

    Don't even argue with them folks. Arguing with overreacting, zealous women is now OFFICIALLY part of "American rape culture" and only serves to undermine their power and glorious achievements. Bow to them and beg forgiveness for breathing the air that clearly belongs to them because of their suffering throughout history.

    April 5, 2013 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  17. Charlotte, NC

    People are so sensitive these days. People just "Run out" on Twitter. Get a Life!

    April 5, 2013 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  18. wrm

    No, you're not sorry, you're just playing along like everyone else whose every word is hacked to pieces. In private you're rolling your eyes like the rest of us.

    April 5, 2013 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  19. Frank

    Odd that some of the same people that defended Akin's remarks are outraged by this comment by Obama.

    April 5, 2013 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  20. Richard Cranium

    The Apologist In Chief strikes again. If they had a Nobel prize for apologizing, he would be nominated.

    April 5, 2013 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  21. Jennie G

    Nobody has yet stated the obvious.... would Obama have uttered those words if Michelle was sitting in the audience??? Absolutely NOT. Obama started thinking with his other brain and got caught where it could not be concealed and covered up. I'm sure Michelle had a few choice words for him, which led to this apology.

    April 5, 2013 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  22. morpheus1459

    Perhaps he should just ask his wife. :>)

    April 5, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  23. Name

    What do people want now his impeachment for giving a compliment? Oh and by the way michelle is like a single mother her husband/ children father is too busy too be home playing the husband role right now we are at the brink of a war our commander and chief is trying to prevent. But just like some of you young hot headed americans north korea leader rather do what

    April 5, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  24. Chris J

    Um... All he did was give a compliment. You basher's need to kick rocks and idk, maybe move to north korea and live your "perfect little lives". i mean, seriously.

    April 5, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  25. chris

    It's not surprising that a man made of image would see only that in others.

    April 5, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
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