Obama suffers poll damage in race row

President drinks beer with scholar and policeman at White House to settle dispute
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The Independent US

Barack Obama significantly damaged his standing with voters – especially white voters – when he intervened in the controversy surrounding the brief arrest of a black Harvard history professor earlier this month by calling the police action in the case "stupid", according to new polling figures released yesterday.

A survey released by the Pew Research Centre found that 41 per cent of all voters disapproved of Mr Obama's handling of the affair, compared with just 29 per cent who approved.

The data was released just hours before the President as well as the Vice-President Joe Biden welcomed both lead players in the drama – Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley – to his home to crack open some cool beers and, hopefully, smooth things over.

The four men gathered early in the evening around a patio table in a corner of the Rose Garden observed just for a few moments by the world's media. While the hosts appeared relaxed in shirt sleeves, grasping their pint glasses – Mr Obama had chosen Budweiser Light while Professor Gates was served Red Stripe – the visitors from Boston seemed more sober and grave in dark suits.

On 16 July, Professor Gates was briefly taken into custody after allegedly getting into a verbal altercation with the sergeant, who was responding to a call from the public about a possible break-in occurring at the scholar's home.

In fact, it was Professor Gates, returning from a foreign trip, who was trying to force open his own front door that had become jammed.

What would barely have warranted a mention in a village crime blotter became the subject of international chatter because of the race dimension, with Professor Gates, a pillar of African American studies and the recipient of numerous awards, complaining that he was the victim of racial profiling.

Then Mr Obama plunged into the mess during a press conference by suggesting the police had "acted stupidly". He later backed off a little, saying he should have "calibrated" his remark more carefully.

The Pew survey found that Mr Obama has "suffered major declines" in his approval ratings in the past month and one reason appears to be his comments about the arrest. Among whites, the report says, the decline was steeper, with those disapproving of his remarks outnumbering those who approved by two to one.

After what had already been dubbed the "beer summit", Mr Obama said in a statement: "I am thankful to Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley for joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation. Even before we sat down for the beer, I learned that the two gentlemen spent some time together listening to one another, which is a testament to them."

Drawing fresh attention to the Boston brouhaha may not prove to be in the President's interests, after he this week received other poor polling news, though this time related to his push for sweeping healthcare reform.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released yesterday showed that while the American public was evenly divided in June over whether his vision for reform was a good idea, the July numbers show a sharp drop in support with 42 per cent saying it was a bad idea and only 36 per cent still favouring it.