April 5th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
9 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.

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"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.

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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. bch

    Actually, she is not very pretty. Kinda looks like a Irish Setter....

    April 5, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  2. ME

    Let me guess. People who support Obama were fine with it, people who don't support Obama were offended. And if it was a Republican who made the remark the only thing that would be different the people who were ok and the people who were offended would be reversed.

    April 5, 2013 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  3. Carl Westin

    What the deuce is wrong with telling a woman that she's attractive?? A sincere compliment does not suggest that she is in any way incompetent. The world is filled with smart, capable women that are also attractive - where's the DEtraction or the DIStraction?

    April 5, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  4. bryanfred

    I'm pretty sure it's other Democrats who are giving him the most grief, not 'GOPers'. I think it was kind of a puzzling thing to say but as usual the backlash is disproportionate to the act.

    April 5, 2013 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  5. Laura Fernandez

    Leave the President alone! It was a nice compliment to her...GET OVER IT! Find something else to complain about!!

    April 5, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  6. liamnc

    Oh common, this isn't the kind of thing you apologize for. As a President, he is much to quick to apologize.

    April 5, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  7. tasaad

    I am a liberal, and I don't see anything wrong with President Obama's comment, just like I did not understand the outrage over Romney's "binders" remark.

    April 5, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  8. Squiggy

    I don't support Obama, but I could care less about this. There are more important things. Like, How are the President's college picks doing. BTW Mr. President. North Korea is saying they are going to launch a nuclear strike against us. Hopefully someone has made you aware of this....

    April 5, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  9. blkdoggy421

    People just need to chill out, get a sense of humor, he paid her a compliment

    April 5, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  10. Ted

    What if The Atty. Gen. were a man who looks like Daniel Craig and he said the same thing?

    April 5, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  11. Anton

    Very dumb thing to say and I'm an Obama donor.

    Michele said she was a single mom

    Looks like wheels coming off smooth family.

    April 5, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  12. Kevin

    Since when did complimenting a beautiful woman became offensive? Whats happening to our society? These feminists and republicans will take us to a society where people are viewed as robos

    April 5, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  13. Dave

    People in t his country are so uptight...a reason to scream about something

    April 5, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  14. Austin Lamon

    Finally, maybe now liberals will start to realize how political correctness has gone to far...to the point of ridiculousness. I am not a big fan of Obama but come on, nothing about that was inappropriate.

    April 5, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  15. ME

    ME has it right. Most of you are brainwashed.

    April 5, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  16. ABS

    One questions guys, if you were the general counsel at a big company and you're working your butt off to do a great job and make a good impression. And then at a big public function your boss, who's a friend, says the the community that you're brilliant, tough and dedicated, and your the best looking general counsel around, that wouldn't be weird? Would it make a difference if your boss was a man or a woman?

    April 5, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  17. ObservantHistorian

    Of course this is a non-issue. If a Repub had done this and received this kind of response, the Repubs would be "stamping their little feet" at a PC world gone crazy. They are experts at faux outrage.

    April 5, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  18. hjc

    Yes she is pretty.

    No she does not do a good job.

    From San Francisco with love!

    April 5, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  19. Matthew

    Anything to distract from the real problems in this country. Same on any media outlet who covered this non-story.

    April 5, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  20. matt

    He adds 6 trillion to the debt and this is what people care about

    April 5, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  21. Jack521

    Delete this section and put up something important. In fact delete twitter and this comment page as well. Everyone shouldn't have a place to voice their opinions. #annoying

    April 5, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  22. anon

    I never, NEVER thought I would be sticking up for ANYTHING Obama said or did, HOWEVER, he did NOT disrespect this woman, and said nothing at all wrong. People need to lay off him for this and instead focus on more important issues. Blasting him for this is ridiculous, petty and stupid.

    April 5, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  23. Tim

    She looks fine to me.

    April 5, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  24. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Gee, I see President Obama as a tall handsome lovely black President and I'm in love with him. But I'm not gay. But straight and gay people alike see our President as a very handsome good looking President and we're all in love with him. Have a problem with that? Then that's your problem.

    April 5, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    If Obama, gave out free toilet paper, a necessary item, many people would be offended.

    April 5, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
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