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Obama Calls Choice of Words on Gates "Unfortunate"

Updated 4:10 p.m. ET

Hours after Cambridge police officers called on President Obama to apologize for comments suggesting that the department had acted "stupidly" in its handling of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Mr. Obama acknowledged that he "could have calibrated [his] words differently."

"To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate," Mr. Obama said in a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing Friday afternoon. The president stopped short of an explicit apology.

The comments marked an attempt by the president to quell the growing controversy over his criticism of the police department's handling of the situation, which has dominated headlines for the past two days despite White House efforts to keep the spotlight on its health care reform efforts.

The president told reporters he had just spoken to Sgt. James M. Crowley, the arresting officer in the case. He said his words "unfortunately, I think, gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sgt. Crowley specifically."

"I have to tell you that, as I said yesterday, my impression of [Crowley] was that he was a outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation," he said. "And I told him that."

The president cast the controversy as a potential "teachable moment." He said the fact that the incident has garnered so much attention is "a testament to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive in America."

"Because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues," he said. "Even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding."

"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," the president said. "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well."

"My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved," he said.

The president said people should "step back for a moment" and recognize both Gates and Crowley are "decent people."

"Instead of pumping up the volume," Mr. Obama said, Americans should "spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities."

He said he spoke to Crowley about potentially having him come to the White House to have a beer, along with Professor Gates. "We may put that together," the president said.

He also said Crowley asked him "if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn."

The president said he disagreed with those who said he should not have weighed in on what was a local issue.

"Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio," he said.

Mr. Obama also signaled that he was ready to move on from the controversy.

"Because over the last two days, as we've discussed this issue," he said, "I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody's been paying much attention to health care."

After the president spoke, Mr. Obama called Gates and invited him to the White House as well, according to a White House statement. The statement said the two men had a "positive discussion."

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