Perhaps President Obama remembered the famous words of late Texas Gov. Ann Richards: "In politics, your enemies can't hurt you, but your friends will kill you.” Realizing that his friend, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, had helped put him in a racial controversy that had already drowned out his health-care message -- and was further endangering his whole presidency -- Obama moved to decisively shut it down Friday.
He called Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer in the Gates case, and issued words of regret for the "acted stupidly" remark. While not fully apologizing, he qualified that there might have been "overreaction" on both sides. He followed that up with an impromptu appearance in the White House Press Room, admitting his own complicity in "ratcheting up" the controversy. He then called Gates to invite him and Crowley to the White House.
By taking these moves, Obama is helping rebuild one of the best parts of his brand -- the racial and political "bridge-builder," with a basic sense of fairness. That was the characteristic most undermined by his unwise statement declaring that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" -- even as Obama was admitting he didn't have all the facts (and that he was biased because Gates was his friend). In an incident that was replete with aspects of race and class, it invited disaster. Indeed, even Obama booster Jon Stewart called Obama "stupid" for jumping in. Worse, given the opportunity to walk back from it on Thursday, Obama didn't do so.
That Obama reversed course and reached out to Crowley demonstrated a couple of things: First, the situation was severely damaging the White House's already on-the-rocks health-care push. Secondly, it became clear from both Crowley's public appearances and his background, that he was about as far from fitting the stereotype of a hot-headed racially-insensitive cop. A black former superior had assigned him to train young cops in avoiding racial profiling situations. He tried to save former NBA star Reggie Lewis when he went into cardiac arrest in 1993. His applauding Obama's gesture may ultimately turn into a second example of him attempting resuscitation to a black man in distress (and more successful than the attempt with Lewis).
He may have acted just in time. Had the controversy lingered over the weekend, the results could have been disastrous. Already police unions were holding press conferences criticizing the president. The Republican House and Senate campaign committees had already prepared ads castigating him, adding a partisan political element to a controversy that was already steeped in race. The incident would have been the dominant topic on the Sunday talk shows (it will still take up a portion of them, but Obama's overture to Crowley will be part of the assessment).
In the short term, Obama stepped on his health-care message at the worst possible time. But that's something he can return to. Ruining his post-racial "brand" would have caused him near-permanent political damage.