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. Eisener

    No, President Obama did not act stupidly. I Entirely agree with his take on it in the first place. And I entirely agree with how he dealt with the aftermath. Bravo! A man of mind.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  2. Jeff Rogers

    The incident should have never made the news, let alone go all the way to the White House.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  3. Ed

    I think most people forgot already the comment officer Crowely made after the incident, "these banana eating monkies," he said refering to black professor. Officers like Crowley don't deserve to be working for public service. He should have been fired. He can possibly doing what he has sworn to do "protect and serve all citizens."

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  4. Kay in Indiana

    The President said that Prof. Gates was a friend and he reacted as anyone would for a friend. We should not lose sight of the fact that Prof. Gates is 59 years old, was in his own home and he walks with a limp using a cane. After he was identified, why did the contact go any further. There is enough blame to go around, but I think the President reacted as a friend and rightful so.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  5. Chubby- TO

    President Obama was very accurate with his statement- that The Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer James Crowley acted stupidly when he arrested Professor Gates at his home. The President was only saying out loud what millions of Americans and people around the world were saying and thinking.

    As per this survey, two-thirds of whites say that a white homeowner would have been arrested for the same behavior and a quarter of blacks agree. Whites are not being honest.

    This problem with police and Blacks will continue until the broader issues of fairness, respect, equality and justice are address. When people of one race hold themselves as superior and others inferior there is going to be racial conflicts at all levels. Respect other people of different races not tolerate.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  6. L Rivera

    I believe that if Obama did not know the details of the case, he was not preparted to qualifiy the police actions as either smart or stupid. Obama did not act wisely jumping the gun on that one.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  7. Carol

    I agree with Carlton. White America may think that the USA isn't divided because they do not harbor racist ideals. The US will never be free of racism.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  8. Dave

    YES – when you deal with the Police you ALWAYS treat them with respect NO MATTER WHAT even when they are in the wrong. Cynthia Tucker said on the Sunday talk shows that America has a constitution right to be beligerent and even obscene to the police due to our 1st ammendment protections – what a fool. If a police officer questions you and you are rude and do not cooperate, then you can get charged with Obstruction of Justice.

    August 4, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  9. Eden

    He needs to remember he's the President of the United States now, not a community organizer. I think he should have stayed out of the matter.

    August 4, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  10. obama 2012

    Is Obama going to come to the aid of Georgia our ally if Russia attacks them or will he run and the left will just defend his actions like always

    August 4, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  11. mo

    The story is done and over with. The author knows that better than we do. He is trying to put down his own President by linking Obama with the word Stupid.

    August 4, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  12. Justin

    Who cares!? This is old news now. Get on with something else. President Obama is a human being he's allowed to make mistakes.

    August 4, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  13. Sach

    Obama had no role in local politics in this case. He just jumped in to it. I think he has good learning curve on what effect he ultimately has to produce as the president of this country.

    August 4, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  14. Chris

    No. Once I heard all the facts, President Obama was right. The Police Offficer abused a little of his authority. That was the Professor's house and when he went in, he should have backed off, but his pride would not let him.

    August 4, 2009 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  15. Oberver

    It is interesting to see how far we have come since last November. These same news outlets and people were soiling their pants when speaking of or to the administration.

    August 4, 2009 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  16. Brendan H., San Antonio, TX

    Obama acted prematurely, mostly out of experience in racial issues, but not stupidly. You want acting stupidly -choose anything done by Obama's predecessor.

    August 4, 2009 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  17. Dustin

    Can you beat this dead horse a few more times? This happened over a week ago. Isn't there something more pressing you can report on than a brief comment made during a press conference that the medial blew out of proportion in the first place.

    I'd much rather hear more on healthcare reform, cash for clunkers, N. Korea, taxes and other social issues than this tired out crap.

    August 4, 2009 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  18. Richard

    When a person speaks that quickly it is coming from his heart. He knew exactly what he was saying.

    August 4, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  19. Mark

    Simple. The ALL acted stupidly. End of discussion, move on with IMPORTANT business.

    August 4, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  20. Bill

    You mean "Did Obama Act Stupidly Again?"

    August 4, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  21. Michael Hsu

    Obama ubviousely spoke stupedly.

    August 4, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  22. Mike

    I'm sorry, but when you're the PRESIDENT, you can't "act like a friend would act".

    If you want to act like the average ordinary person, then please step down from this hight skill specific job. I want my president to act like a president. Not someone's friend.

    August 4, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  23. Cindy-San Francisco

    He simply misspoke. I am so OVER this story already.

    August 4, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  24. tonyt

    Don't Know, Don't Care!

    August 4, 2009 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
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