WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday backed off his contention that police had acted "stupidly" in arresting a black Harvard University professor on disorderly conduct charges at his own home -- hoping to tamp down an escalating racial furor that has diverted attention from his policy agenda.
The president, making a rare surprise visit to the White House press briefing room, said he had chosen the wrong words in saying the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department had blundered. He said his comments had "obviously helped" to ratchet up a debate about race relations that was growing more tense by the hour.
"So to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate," Obama said.
The president on Friday also phoned the arresting officer and the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., inviting them to the White House to discuss the disagreement over a beer. In a statement to the black news website the Root, which Gates heads, Gates said he "would be happy to oblige" and meet with Sgt. James Crowley.
Obama stopped short of apologizing for his remark about the police, which he made during a prime-time news conference Wednesday. But he said that in his conversation Friday with Crowley, he acknowledged that "I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently."
At the Wednesday news conference, Obama had used stark language in blaming Cambridge police for an arrest that he said should never have happened. Over next two days, he tempered his position, saying Gates might also have been at fault.
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home to the station," Obama said. "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that professor Gates probably overreacted as well."
What led Obama to this point began with the report of a break-in at Gates' home July 16. Cambridge police arrived on the scene and questioned Gates, who after returning from a trip to China had been seen trying to force open the front door.
In his police report, Crowley said Gates had been "very uncooperative" and had accused Crowley of being a "racist police officer."
Gates' supporters have said that he posed no threat and was treated with more suspicion because of his race. Gates was arrested on disorderly conduct charges, which were later dropped.
Obama's remarks Friday came just hours after a news conference held by Cambridge police union officials, who said the president needed to apologize. Crowley was present but did not speak.
Without a full picture of what happened, Obama should have stayed out of the discussion, union officials said. Particularly hurtful was Obama's attempt to link the arrest to racial profiling by law enforcement, they said.
Sgt. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Assn., said: "The supervisors and the patrol officers of the Cambridge Police Department deeply resent the implication and reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case they have allowed a person's race to direct their activities."
Stephen Killion, president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Assn., said: "I think the president should make an apology to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country who took offense to this."
The dust-up follows months of relatively smooth relations between the White House and law enforcement. The biggest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, had not endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Still, its leaders spoke in favor of the president's nominations of Eric H. Holder Jr. for attorney general and of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Also, police groups were pleased that Obama directed billions of dollars in stimulus funds to policing.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police's legislative office, said he had been "taken aback" by Obama's criticism of the Cambridge police. "He had been pretty good to law enforcement," Pasco said.
Obama's attempts Friday to put the Gates matter to rest reflected growing apprehension at the White House that the incident threatened to overwhelm the president's crowded policy agenda. Keeping the nation's focus on his proposed healthcare overhaul has become increasingly difficult, Obama conceded.
In one respect, Obama did not backtrack: He seemed unwilling to drop the idea that race played a part in Gates' confrontation with police.
Describing Crowley as an "outstanding police officer," the president said: "Even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding."