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. Jlongs

    There will always be differing points of view, defined by race, in this country. That's just the way it is. Let us take cues from the professor and the policeman and move forward respectfully, even if we have to agree to disagree. Let us remember our strenght still lies in our diversity.

    August 4, 2009 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  2. Vance

    Absolutely Obama acted stupidly by passing judgement without the facts about a case involving a friend. There was nothing racial about it. The officer received a call to respond to a 911 call about an attempted break-in. He did and asked for identification from someone who was inside. Why is that wrong?

    Even the african american officers at the scene said they would have done the same thing. Those guys are being called "uncle tom's" or "sell-outs" by their "community".

    I love also the fact they all get together for a beer, but that's supposed to be the ending image vs. someone getting to the bottom of the matter and admitting they were wrong to:
    1. Error in commenting without the facts – Obama
    2. Over-reacting – Gates

    August 4, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  3. amanda

    Mr. Obama did not act stupidly. He was so outraged by officer's act, that he (Obama) couldn't find another way to express himself. I think Obama was correct in his initial remarks. I didn't like the fact that he "almost" apologized for his act to this officer.

    August 4, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  4. Just Lex

    No the President did not act stupidly in this matter. He told the truth and I am sure there are many other cases like this involving African American men.

    August 4, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  5. elliott

    Wonder if he likes how his foot tastes...?

    August 4, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  6. Craig of LA

    I disclose I am white. To arrest a man shouting at a police officer on the front porch of his home after home ownership had been verified is stupid. Once residency and ownership was established, the police should have left. The man had justifiable anger. Now if he was out on the street, or in a public place disrupting or disturbing others, then yes, arrest him. But to arrest him in his home, sorry this is America not the Soviet Union.

    August 4, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  7. nom deplume, esq.

    This absolutely hurt him. I heard numerous negative comments from folks who voted for Obama. Not all Obama supporters have been smoking the hopeium and his support is a mile wide but only inches deep across the middle political spectrum. Further, he has alienated police, a key constituency, and hasn't fully won them back with his quasi mea culpa.

    While it won't move the needle in any appreciable way, there is no question that this was the last straw for some, and will be a continuing straw for others.

    August 4, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  8. Cal

    What do you expect America?
    Obama is all THEATRICS and no SUBSTANCE.
    He should keep his nose out of things he knows nothing about; but
    we are talking about defending a "friend" of his.
    The U.S. will never change as long as we do not treat one another
    as equals. What a sad thing to have this as our countr'y's legacy!

    August 4, 2009 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  9. Chris

    I believe Professor Gates made this a racial issue. Sgt Crowley was responding to a home he believed someone may be breaking into. When Sgt Crowley initially made contact with Professor Gates and asked for identification he was met with resistance which could be a sign Professor Gates is under duress. Professor Gates made this incident a racial one with the "...why, because I'm a black man..." comment. I don't believe Sgt Crowley did anything wrong and if Professor Gates cooperated with a Law Enforcement investigation, this incident wouldn't have even made the 6 o'clock news.

    As far as the President – I do believe his comments about the police department were wrong. I respect him for sticking up for a friend but he stupidly commented about the Police department without knowing all of the facts (admittedly). I believe he should have stayed out of it. Will the president be commenting on every white officer's arrest of a black man (or vice versa) made in the US and whether it was a justified or not?

    I do believe racial profiling is a problem in this country; however, I don't believe this incident was a reflection of it. Not every white police officer is out to find a black subject.

    August 4, 2009 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  10. Tek

    The fact is most white people are going to side with the police officer because he is white and black people are going to side with Gates because he is black. This isn't complicated here folks. You can say its wrong and that its bias but that's the truth. We are always going to side with people who are more like us no matter what. I personally thought the president did a wise thing when he did talked about it because you have to be completely ignorant if you don't think race relations is a big problem in America. The the fact that so many Americans are so angry should tell us that its still a huge problem.

    August 4, 2009 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  11. Stacy

    Sadly, as with everything in this country anymore, this had to be turned into a black/white issue. Well, Gates was an angry man just LOOKING for a fight and found it in Crowley. What ever happened to , "Oh thanks officer, thanks for looking out for my home and my possesions, here's my ID, I appreciate you taking the time to sort this out." Quickly followed by a "No problem Mr. Gates, we are here to help and we are glad this was not a break in as your concerned neighbor thought. Thank goodness this ended well for everyone."

    Now for all of the "I dare cops to ask for my ID", obviously you have had negative run in's with police, surely because "the cop was a jerk" and you did nothing wrong. Are there bad cops out there? You bet but there are more good ones out there that get caught up in this nonsense and lose what credibility we allow them to have left.

    Now, if the cops DIDN'T come and Gates house WAS being broken into, then it would be because the cops ignored him because he was Black.. A lose lose for the cops no matter what.

    August 4, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  12. Steve

    Sure he did, but he disagrees. Fortunately, as an American he has that right. As president, I think he needs to be a little more careful of what he says in public, but so does his VP.
    They are human and if this is the worse thing he ever says or does we are going to be better off than we were with the last President. He made "stupid" an art form and his VP wasn't exactly "smart" when it came to hunting.
    If we will all get behind this President and tell Congress to stop acting like children, I think we will gain the respect of the world and prosper.

    August 4, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  13. TIS

    Racial profiling still exists....the people who claim it doesn't exist, have never experienced it. Plain and simple..people who have never been through something (you know what people I'm talking about) always claim it's not true and it's not real. Why do we continue to argue with them? They're narrow minded and they think everything in this world is perfect.....let's stop discussing it already....

    August 4, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  14. Pat in Omaha

    I voted for Barak Obama and will do it again! But his choice of words was indeed unfortunate. The arrest of someone who was in his home was also unfirtunate. And, making a police person angry was also unfortunate. It's done now...move on!

    August 4, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  15. Rick

    The President was asked the question and he answered it, now get over it and get on with something more important..

    August 4, 2009 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  16. citizenUSA

    Yes he did. He did not know the full circumstances so he had no need to comment until he did. Maybe he was trying to stave off race riots or something. Even his "apology" was lame. I did not hear him say Professor Gates acted stupidly which we all found out to be the truth from HARD evidence.

    August 4, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  17. Mike

    Yes he did....he made a sweeping comment about an entire group of people without even the knowledge of exactly what happened.

    I think Gates having a problem like he did with the fact that the police were investigating a call someone else made about a potential break-in to his own house is short sighted. He wanted to focus more on the fact that he was black and the cops weren't rather than focus on the fact that one of his neighbors....who apparently don't know what he looks like...a separate issue there....called the cops after being under the impression that someone was breaking into Gates' home. If gates wants to be upset with anybody, he needs to be upset with his neighbors and not the police, who are paid to respond to a call, no matter who called and what the call is's their duty. I find it fallable that a harvard professor takes such a knee jerk position about this and associates blame incorrectly, and on a national setting. To me, it discredits what he thinks about....I mean, would a LEVEL-HEADED person behave like that? Why would someone pay Harvard money to be taught by someone who engages in rhetoric such as Gates?

    August 4, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  18. Pat

    A "teachable moment" would have been for President Obama to describe how police put their lives on the line on every call they make. Sgt. Crowley did not know what he would find at the house or what weapons they might have. Then President Obama should have described the protocal (for all colors) on how one interacts with the police. There is no doubt that a white man acting similarly would have been treated the same way!

    August 4, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  19. linda bowens

    I am somewhat amused when white people start articulating how African Americans are supposed to act in certain situations.

    How can you give an opinion until your felt the sting of being qualified, but discriminated against every day?

    Have you ever worked two jobs and earned an honest living, but could not shop with dignity because of profiling?

    Have you ever applied for a job and were not chosen although you were more qualified? The reason given was "the other person's title was the same as this position. "

    I don't think that Professor Gates would not have been arrested if he had been white. The officer should have apologized for the inconvenience and politely wished Mr. Gates a good night.

    August 4, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  20. neil ervin

    When the President of the United States says 'I don't know the facts' and then proceeds to say someone acted stupidly, the President is being stupid. And this would be true if the President were of any race or gender.

    August 4, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  21. Roger

    Police man power trip... Pres Obama has more on his plate then anyone posting on this article. Stop wasting your time pretending that any one could handle the situation better while caught up in the moment.

    August 4, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  22. tyrone byrd

    If Sgt. Crowley failed to alert Prof. Gates at the outset that, due to a reported break-in at the home,and for that reason and that reason only, he wanted Prof. Gates to set outside, I then conclude that Sgt. Crowley displayed poor judgment and inadequate policing technique. I would not say that he acted stiupidly but defintely poor judgment. There was no cause for any homeowner, and in this case Prof. Gates, to step outside unless a solid break-in reason was given, no matter whether it was a policeman,etc. He was inside his home and doing no wrong. If the facts failed to establish the above warning by Sgt. Crowley at the initial encounter, that created the wrong message, perception and sentiments to Prof. Gates.

    August 4, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  23. Adrian D'Cruz

    Obama was completely out of line to make any comments with respect to the Gates / Crowley issue.

    It wasn't a race issue and Obama made it one. Just goes to show who was really to blame during the presidential campaign. It was Obama who raised Race not Bill Clinton.

    I thought Obama was going to change washington, instead he is introducing nepotism at it worst – just because Gates was his friend.

    Obama owes the Police Departments through the US am apology for his own stupid remarks being ill informed and ignorant of the issue

    August 4, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  24. William from Minneapolis

    No, the President didn't act stupidly. Once Gates showed his ID showing he lived there, why does this so called cop go any turther? I know my white brethren doesn't get it. I wish they could go one year being analyzed under race lenses and maybe they'd get it!!

    August 4, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  25. Bev

    Perhaps President Obama regrets his words, perhaps not. He was gracious in his own retrospect, however, and presented a lesson in conciliation. Perhaps most of all this is a lesson to think before you speak – something that applies to all.

    August 4, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
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