WASHINGTON — President Obama tried Friday to defuse a volatile national debate over the arrest of a black Harvard University professor as he acknowledged that his own comments had inflamed tensions and insisted he had not meant to malign the arresting officer.
Mr. Obama placed calls to both the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, two days after saying the police had “acted stupidly” last week in hauling Professor Gates from his home in handcuffs. Mr. Obama said he still considered the arrest “an overreaction,” but added that “Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”
“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” the president said in an appearance in the White House briefing room. “I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”
Mr. Obama’s unusual personal intervention and public statement came just four hours after the White House said he had no more to say on the matter. But after talking with Michelle Obama and some of his closest friends amid unrelenting publicity, his advisers said, the president reversed course in hopes of quashing a dispute that had set off strong reactions and made it harder for the White House to focus attention on his efforts to pass health care legislation.
The Gates case has become the first significant racial controversy Mr. Obama has confronted since being sworn in as the nation’s first African-American president. The improvisational handling of it underscored the delicate challenges for a leader who has tried to govern by crossing old lines and emphasizing commonalities over differences.
Advisers said both his sharp statement, which was made at Wednesday night’s news conference, and his toned-down remarks on Friday reflected strains of his experiences. He was personally outraged by the arrest and wanted to speak bluntly about it, aides said. And they said he was distressed that his words proved polarizing and contrary to his instincts for conciliation.
Whether he succeeded in tamping down the emotions of the case remained to be seen. In their telephone conversation, Mr. Obama said, Sergeant Crowley suggested that he and Professor Gates come to the White House to share a beer with the president. Mr. Obama then conveyed that idea in his phone call with Professor Gates.
Professor Gates said in an e-mail message afterward that he was “pleased to accept his invitation” to come to the White House and meet Sergeant Crowley. “After all, I first made the offer to meet with Sgt. Crowley myself, last Monday,” he wrote. “I told the president that my entire career as an educator has been devoted to racial healing and improved race relations in this country. I am determined that this be a teaching moment.”
Sergeant Crowley made no public comments after his conversation with the president. He has denied doing anything wrong and has declined to apologize to Professor Gates.
The episode stemmed from a misunderstanding when Professor Gates returned to his Cambridge home on July 16 and found his door stuck. A woman reported seeing someone trying to break into the house and the police responded. Although the arresting police officer became aware that Professor Gates was in his own home, the police said he was belligerent and arrested him for disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.
Mr. Obama defended his decision to weigh in. “The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society,” he said. “Whether I were black or white,” he said, commenting “is part of my portfolio.”
Mr. Obama first discussed with aides how to address the arrest during a meeting before his Wednesday news conference. Aides said Mr. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, zeroed in on the fact that the arrest came after police confirmed that Professor Gates was in his own home.
But his use of the word “stupidly” at the news conference that evening generated angry responses from Cambridge police, and some of his aides privately rued the word choice. Mr. Obama, who said he was surprised at the response, discussed the issue over dinner with friends at his home in Chicago on Thursday during a quick trip there for a fund-raiser, according to people close to the family. On Friday morning, they said, he also talked it through with Mrs. Obama.
By then, the controversy had dominated White House staff meetings. Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, had told reporters at 10 a.m. that Mr. Obama had nothing more to say. Some advisers had concluded the furor would not dissipate unless Mr. Obama made another statement, while others were wary of him revisiting the episode and particularly did not want him to apologize, they said.
During the morning, police union members held a news conference in Cambridge calling on Mr. Obama to apologize for demeaning Sergeant Crowley and suggesting it was Professor Gates who had made it a racial incident.
“The facts of this case suggest that the president used the right adjective but directed it to the wrong party,” said Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association.
Sgt. Leon Lashley, an African-American officer at the Gates house that day, separately told The Associated Press that he supported Sergeant Crowley’s actions “100 percent.”
The police event contributed to what one White House aide called a “critical mass,” but aides said it was not the deciding factor, noting that Mr. Obama had not watched. Shortly after noon, Mr. Obama called his senior adviser, David Axelrod. “I’m going to call Sergeant Crowley and then I think I ought to step into the press room and address it,” Mr. Axelrod said he said.
The president dictated some thoughts intended to avoid directly blaming either the professor or the officer, and speechwriters had less than two hours to craft remarks. Mr. Obama called Sergeant Crowley about 2:15 p.m. and they spoke for five minutes. He went to the briefing room to make his statement, then called Professor Gates about 3:15 p.m.
Mr. Obama said the issue was making it harder for him to focus attention on health care. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care,” he said.
He did not apologize but softened his language. “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,” he said. “I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”
Mr. Obama described Sergeant Crowley as an “outstanding police officer and a good man” who has “a fine track record on racial sensitivity.” But he said the incident showed that “because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.”
John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that unlike white presidents who could dance around racial issues, Mr. Obama had to be direct. “That’s the whole difference. Bush could punt. Obama can’t punt,” he said. “This issue resonates with him.”
Christopher Edley Jr., a former adviser to President Bill Clinton on race issues and now law school dean at the University of California, Berkeley, said the episode dispelled the “rosy hopefulness” stemming from Mr. Obama’s election “in case anybody needed more evidence that we’re not beyond race.”