WASHINGTON — The success of President Barack Obama's ambitious agenda — from health care and climate change to education — could depend on how quickly he recovers from the sharp drop in support among white voters after criticizing a white policeman's arrest of a black Harvard scholar.
Obama's widely publicized effort to defuse the first racial flare-up of his young presidency by inviting the protagonists to the White House last week for beers and conversation ended well by most accounts, even though there were no apologies.
Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. Joseph Crowley and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. agreed to disagree about the July 16 confrontation at Gates' home and pledged to meet again.
Obama's impromptu comments about the incident could become a defining moment. Nearly immediately after Obama's remark that police had "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates, his approval rating plummeted among whites, dropping over two days from 53 percent to 46 percent in a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
If Obama is to have success with the policy changes he wants, he can't afford to shed white support. Not to mention the disaster that losing the affections of many in the blue-collar, Reagan Democrat constituency would spell for any re-election campaign.
Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said he was stunned at how poorly Obama, normally so controlled, handled what Jacobs called "the first major personal debacle for the president."
"This thing was just hung around his neck and he couldn't get rid of it," Jacobs said. "I think he presumed too much. He really started to believe his own press releases on post-racial America."
OK: even if I have a lot of unresolved issues with the Gates controversy, I would agree that as a politician and a President, Barack Obama shoved his foot squarely into his mouth with the stupidly comment.
And OK: I don't at all like the direction of health care, or civil liberties, or foreign policy, or deficit spending, or a lot else under this administration.
And even OK: I will grant you that this is President Obama's first really serious media gaffe.
But if that's how we, as American citizens, then make our decisions on issues like health care, or civil liberties, or the war in Afghanistan, we really are truly f**ked.
PS: please spare me the idea that this moment suddenly revealed Obama's true character or socialist nature or racial agenda to a large number of Americans. That would simply be arguing that we're all incredibly stupid from the other direction.