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

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

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="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. barbara

    What was stupid was that the POTUS should not have been involves at all, chose to get involved and showed his true ant-white sentiment when he did.

    August 4, 2009 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  2. Darko

    The poll is flawed as most people think Crowley arrested him for 'breaking and entering' rather than 'disordely conduct' for the tirade he launched into at the beginning and kept on with.

    August 4, 2009 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  3. Steve in Denver

    I wish Obama would not have said what he said, but he did, and it was accurate.

    A police officer arresting someone for disorderly conduct in their own home can not be described as anything other than "stupid." "Disorderly conduct" involves causing a disruption IN PUBLIC. By definition, it could not be inside one's own house.

    Neither Gates nor Crowley acted in an adult manner. Gates should have said "thanks for looking out for my house, here's my ID." Someone on the police force should have said "Sgt. Crowley, you can't arrest someone for disorderly conduct in their own home."

    Either course of action, or Obama not talking about it, would have stopped this from being yet another trivial distraction to our real issues.

    August 4, 2009 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  4. kapinatl

    More important, what is happening with the "falsified police report" issued by Crowley. Is this a "lame duck" now since they shared a beer?

    August 4, 2009 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  5. George

    No he didn't. He is an American and is entitled to his feelings. He is one of the more human presidents. Like us he too can get caught up in his feelings, and speak out.

    August 4, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  6. Gary

    The media acted stupidly and almost always does. This reporter that asked a question that had nothing to do with the news conference, acted stupidly. Sounds like Ed Henery. More "Gotcha" reporting.
    It's time President Obama starts putting idiot reporters like these in the back row.

    August 4, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  7. ArtNYC

    How could it have possibly been a teaching moment when no cameras were allowed or a transcript was provided.

    August 4, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  8. Chuck

    The only ones who really acted stupidly were the press.
    Out to get a story or make one up.
    The press has no concern for the truth or a solution, only a story.
    The press should be ashamed!!!

    August 4, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  9. zago

    The big item is the great hypocrisy in the media. When Obama goes to a black church or NAACP and talk tough, the media says this president is the only one who can give tough love to black people. When he says something that involves a white man, the media takes one word in isolation and hammer him home. Biased media!

    August 4, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  10. AJ

    No, this didn't spark a debate in racial profiling. It sparked a debate on Obama's judgment and whether or not he would have taken the same position had Gates been hispanic, or asian or gay instead of African American. Doublful. Gates didn't act stupidly hey he got his 15 minutes which was his motive. Well, he got it. Now lets hope he just goes away.

    August 4, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  11. Renee

    The problem with this is that Obama spoke before knowing all of the facts. That is typically uncharacteristic of him and I hope he doesn't do it again.

    August 4, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  12. Steve in Kentucky

    Well, count me among the whites who think the cop DID act stupidly.

    There's a lot about this arrest that never got a full airing - even though the talking heads on TV couldn't stop yapping about it.

    For instance, there's this little nugget: From the time the initial call was made on the suspected break in to the time Mr. Gates was being led out of his home in handcuffs was SIX MINUTES. That means the entire episode between Gates and the cop probably didn't last more than three minutes all by itself.

    That's hardly enough time to make a public spectacle of yelling at the cop. Oh. Wait. Since he was inside his own home, I guess it wasn't a public spectacle was it? I guess there wasn't any reason to arrest him then, was there?

    August 4, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  13. moses

    Wow, those stats are a real shocker. Glad there's no racial divide since BO got elected.

    August 4, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  14. Steve, New York City

    It is incredible how some politicians and some "elements" of the media, appear content on "stoking the racial divide!"

    Let's face it, if Lou Dobbs returned from an intercontinental trip, and arrived at his own home (jet lagged) . . . . and maybe "mouthed off" a bit too much to a cop, (and was subsequently got handcuffed and photographed) by a black police officer, many people would be calling for that police officer's head in a guillotine!!!

    WAKE UP AMERICA – color doesn't matter – most people are just idiots (and that cuts across ALL COLORS – no exceptions).

    August 4, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  15. Steve

    This just in: 71% of Americans polled feel that CNN acted very stupidly in conducting and/or publishing this poll. 15% answered "somewhat stupidly" and the rest simply stated "We need more CHANGE!"-obviously suffering from their rhetoric button being stuck. The numbers show no racial divide in these feelings.

    August 4, 2009 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  16. IndyVoter

    Really? You don't say. Blacks & whites see this issue differently? I wonder why....Of course they do. Until people are willing to let go of their preconceived notions of others, we will always have this problem.

    August 4, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  17. Lauren

    Race is still a major issue in America.

    August 4, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  18. Hotdog

    No he did not. Any politician no matter what party that they are affiliated with will eventually mis-speak so that is not big thing.

    August 4, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  19. Darrel from Denver

    No. He called it like he saw it.

    August 4, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  20. smokey

    I think that the Media once again tried to sabotage the real issues being debated..Pres Obama was holding a conference on HelathCare, so I ask you what was the deal with that so called reported asking a wuestion that had nothing what so ever to do with the conversation !!! She was just trying to distract people from the real issues Pres Obama was discussing, while at the same starting some controversy..Why can's people just take the situation for what is was..2 people in a situation where both thought they acted appropriately..To me, that reporter is the one who wanted to inject racism into the issue, because i guarantee if Pres Obama had been a white man, the question whould have never came up ! And further more, if Pres Obama was not black the media would not have jumped all over it and did their usual spin..Now I ask everyone, who are the real racist !!!!!

    August 4, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  21. JGB

    Well is this some sort of surprise?? All the crying for racial equality appears to be a crock of crap, it's superiority or nothing. Whites appear to be more tolerant and accepting. Remember the elections and the % of Blacks that voted for Obama. OJ trial, Rodney King incident. It appears blacks support blacks no matter what and whites support what is right or wrong regardless of color. Racial tensions will not ease up until the blacks can accept that whites don't care about color and quit making it an issue. You can't play that race card forever, we are all human beings. Time to move on.

    August 4, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  22. Leon

    Apologize, that is something he is good at, he does it dso well abroad.

    August 4, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  23. joe

    I am of the belief that a President has to admit when he is wrong – Office Crowley was just doing his job, a job where his life is endanger always and Mr. Obama's comments made light of this fact – our officers and military should be revered and Mr. Obama should not have spoken at all until knowing all the facts and that he did speak without knowing the facts he should have publicly apologized to the officer and shown he exhibits leadership characteristics. He has done damage, I live in NY and the other day a car drove down the FDR with a poster in the back window and written upon it was "Black Power".

    August 4, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  24. montag24

    Everybody involved acted stupidly and hopefully it won't happen again. Now let it go, please. Let it rest in peace with Michael Jackson. There are far more important issues to be discussing.

    August 4, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
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