Now that President Obama, Henry Louis Gates and Michael Crowley have had beer at the White House, President Obama has put a Band-aid on a self-inflicted wound. Polls suggest, however, that the wound is deeper than he may think.
When the Pew Research Center asked people how much they had heard about Barack Obama's comments regarding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates by a police officer, a significant 79% answered that they had heard a lot or something about it. In the next question, more people disapproved (41%) than approved (29%) of the way the president handled it.
When asked by pollsters who was most at fault, lots of people said they didn't have an opinion. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 27% said Gates was more at fault, but 11% said Crowley was. Thirty-three percent didn't have an opinion. In Pew's poll, 27% said Gates was more at fault and 25% said Crowley was. Once again, a large 36% said they didn't know.
Polls provide clues about why the president reacted as he did and why he pulled back. "[W]e know separate and apart from this incident that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact," the president said. There is a large and persistent gap in black and white attitudes about the police and law enforcement matters.
In Gallup's 2008 Minority Rights and Relations survey, when people were asked how much confidence they had in the local police in their areas to treat blacks and whites equally, 81% of non-Hispanic whites compared to 45% of blacks said they had a great deal or a fair amount. In another question, 32% of non-Hispanic whites, compared to 67% of blacks said the justice system is biased against blacks. Thirty-seven percent of blacks in an ABC News poll believed they personally have been stopped by the police solely because of their race. Fifty-nine percent of black men, compared with 22% of black women in the poll, gave that response.
A new poll from Los Angeles, where the tensions between the black community and the police have been especially sharp, shows that majorities of blacks and whites approve of the LAPD, but there is still a gap. Eighty-one percent of whites compared to 68% of blacks in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Public Opinion Strategies poll approved of the job the LAPD is doing.
While blacks are more skeptical about the police, they are also more likely than whites to tell pollsters that there is a place near their homes that they would be afraid to walk at night, and they have been more supportive than whites of increasing spending on law enforcement.
So if polls tell us why the president may have reacted the way he did initially by saying the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," they also tell us why he backed away so quickly from his remarks.
Democrats have done poorly with the white working class, epitomized by cops and firefighters. Even though the group has shrunk over time, it is still large and important. Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, in their paper from the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings election demography project, note that whites without a college degree are 48% of the voting age population. Bill Clinton carried them by one percentage point. Al Gore and John Kerry lost them by 17 to 23 points, respectively. Obama improved on Kerry's performance, losing them by 18 points.
Many Democrats have seemed out of step with their beliefs and aspirations. The president's gaffe, his refusal to apologize outright and Gates' suggestion that Sgt. Crowly "beg" his forgiveness are the kind of actions that increase their distance from Democrats. Saying the Cambridge police acted stupidly was not only wrong on the merits, but wrong-headed politically.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.